As most of you know, travel is one of my favourite things. Just a few months ago, the most amazing thing I could imagine doing was to get on a plane to India, take my bicycle for a ride for several days and then tour the country. And it was as amazing as I imagined.
But what now? With all of us spending as much time as possible at home, things have changed. Google Maps sent me an email just a week or so ago telling me about the exciting month I’d had. I’d walked 5 kilometres, ridden my bike 74 kilometres and went to four places: Two grocery stores, work (essential work building a vaccine manufacturing facility), and to the pet food store to pick up food at the curb for our cats. Everything else was virtual. I rode over 400 kilometres in a virtual world, I had virtual book clubs, virtual games days with friends, virtual coffee and chat meetups. And the fact is, I don’t see this changing significantly any time soon. Two things will bring things close to “normal”: one is a vaccine (12-18 months away at best), and the other is carefully cultivated “herd immunity” likely brought about through slowly opening things up such that people get exposed and contract the virus at a rate that is manageable for health care workers to keep up with.
So what do we do in the interim? How do we satisfy our desire for travel? Last week’s trip to work gave me a bit of insight, I think.
Getting ready for the trip feels as exciting as getting ready for a long trip. I pack a bag for the trip with clothes and toiletries for showering and getting ready at work. I bring snacks and lunch and plan an interesting route – different each way for maximum variety.
My route to work is about 20 km – just over 12 miles. If I don’t stop it takes about an hour. The first 5 miles or so are off-road, following a paved path along the Don River, through the woods. On this trip I resolved to appreciate the route a bit more rather than pushing as hard as I could to get to work quickly.
The sun has just come up and when I enter the woods, the trees, now with a few leaves, block the sun and it feels noticeably cooler. Birds are singing as I coast down the hill in to the ravine where the river is. That extra wind, now without exertion to generate heat makes me feel a little chilly. As I go down the hill I pass a couple of runners, out to get their exercise in before the crowds show up.
At the bottom of the hill I hear a small stream. I know this means I have to slow down a lot because a bridge with a metal grate surface is coming up. I probably should get off my bike and walk as it feels a little unstable, pulling my wheel a little bit left and right but I make do with slowing down enough that if I do fall it won’t be too traumatic.
Now across the bridge, I’m in the park proper. A huge parking lot is here but as the park is closed to traffic to keep too many people from using it, it is completely empty. I turn toward the northbound path. A washroom building is there, lights glowing in the darkness. It’s closed and locked to prevent use but somehow looks cozy in the early morning light – like a remote cabin.
As I pass the building the sound of the river gets louder and competes with the sounds of robins and blue jays. My route will take me another couple of kilometres beside the river. Down in the ravine I can barely hear the city traffic. Only a distant freight train is loud enough to be heard down here.
There are still only 1-2 trail users, some running, some walking. But I hear lots of rustling in the bushes. Squirrels are out in force, emboldened by the fact that there are so few humans out to bother them.
On my right I see a little cluster of pine trees that I have passed every day I’ve taken this route but today, after passing it, I turn around. I don’t need to rush through every moment of my day. And so I lean my bike against the tree and spend some time watching and listening to the river go by.
The instant I stop the video, I hear quacking from above and soon a pair of ducks arrive:
After a few minutes I continue heading for work, riding through a quiet residential neighbourhood, back in to another park and then to another neighbourhood where I notice that spring really has sprung. There are so many flowers blooming it makes me feel wonderful to look at them.
Also as I ride I see many signs like this one:
And this one:
And this one:
It makes me happy to see them.
Traffic is delightfully sparse and soon I am at the 15 km mark, nearly to work. I’m riding through another suburban neighbourhood just south of Finch Avenue, a major cross-town road in North York when I see a cat a couple hundred metres ahead. It’s trotting along in the road which has been empty of vehicles other than me for several minutes now. As I get closer to it, it turns east down a street and when I get to the street myself I see that I’m wrong. It’s not a cat at all. It’s a fox and it is beautiful. We stare at each other for a few seconds before I decide to try to get my phone out of my jacket for a photo but she is having none of it. She runs off to the east and by the time I can get a photo it’s only of a tiny red blob in the distance. Clearly she did not consent to having her photo taken.
I pass a few more runners and early morning cyclists on the pathway to work and arrive in time to have a quick shower, make a coffee and get ready for my first zoom meeting. I start the day refreshed and happy.
Just a slight slowing down and a bit of extra attention turned a trip to work in to an interesting experience – even a “mini-vacation.” It made me think a lot about what the meaning of travel is and how we do it.
The biggest interest in travel for me is seeing something new or having a a new experience. We might see something we’ve never seen before, learn some history we didn’t know, try a food we’ve never had, or meet someone we never met before. Now while a few of those are less available to us as we shelter in place and live under lockdown conditions, there’s a common thread among all of them: Paying attention and looking at the world with curiousity and wonder.
Think about that for a minute. Do you require an international flight to see something new? Do you need to book a month off to see something amazing? Or do you merely have to look in your own neighbourhood in a place or in a way you’ve never looked before?
Take our own neighbourhood, for example. If you walk around Thorncliffe Park you’ll see a pretty typical Toronto neighbourhood of highrises, stores, a shopping mall, a little light industry. But my son has gone a little off the beaten path in to a nearby ravine. And there he’s found a place that is clearly an old place where people dumped bottles – in the 1930’s. After any rainstorm he can go down and find new things, old perfume bottles, cobalt glass, an old heavy Coke bottle. Since his first trip down there he has been drinking his morning coffee from a mug he found buried under a tree, a root snaking through the handle. And this place led us both down the rabbit hole of looking at the history of this neighbourhood. What did it look like in the 1930’s. Who was here? What businesses were around?
When I was about 10 I read a book called The 79 Squares in which a boy meets an old man who encourages him to divide the old man’s garden in to 79 squares and spend an hour in each one paying attention to what’s going on in each one, looking at plants, identifying them. Following ants and birds and seeing where they go. He gets fascinated by all that is happening in each six foot by six foot square as he digs deeper in to what he sees there.
It has made me decide to experiment. Now that our world has shrunk down to our neighbourhood, what happens if I take all that attention that I might spread across many destinations around the world, and concentrate it here. Going deeper in knowledge instead of broader. Sure, there were lions in the Gir jungle when I was there, but there are beavers, deer, coyotes, and clearly ducks in our own forests literally in our back yard. What will happen if I give as much attention and interest to the things just outside my window as I do to things on the other side of the world?
In the age of the pandemic, and, for that matter, of climate change where perhaps casual world travel isn’t so responsible, perhaps this is a question we all should consider exploring.