Society

The Walking Cure

On the trail in northern Quebec—finding salvation, one step at a time

From the October 2013 magazine
Photograph by Michael Graydon and Nikole Herriott

The late-afternoon late February sky is a flat grey, not the most flattering light in which to behold the muffled beauty of Quebec’s boreal forest. The wind whips my face and erases the tracks of the pilgrims whose footsteps I am following across a frozen lake. Wet snow has been falling all day, weighing down the scraggy branches of the black spruce and balsam fir that crowd the blurry shoreline. Chin tucked into jacket collar, wool toque pulled low over forehead, I shield my eyes by studying my borrowed snowshoes, glancing up every few strides to gauge my bearings. A tedious way to move forward, to be sure, but it gives you plenty of time to think.

Lurching around the park down the street from my bungalow in semi-suburban Ottawa for an hour, I am now realizing, might not have been adequate preparation. My back aches from pulling a cheap plastic sled laden with twenty kilograms of warm clothing and camping gear. I’m sweaty, which can beget trouble on a winter expedition. I’m thirsty: more trouble. There is chafing. And it’s only the first day of a seventeen-day trek. We have another 340 kilometres to cover.

The distance is daunting, but more so is the thought of doing this trip with roughly sixty strangers, all of whom are Aboriginal or francophone, or both. As a unilingual, urban Anglo-Ontarian more accustomed to solo hikes and car camping, I am apprehensive about such close quarters. It’s not a paralyzing doubt, more of a gnawing anxiety. I know where I am and where we are going (more or less), but I’m not convinced I can reach the finish line—and, perhaps most worrisome, I have lost track of why I’m here.

The home stretch of today’s route crosses the neck of a Y-shaped lake just southwest of Manawan, a small, isolated Atikamekw reserve about 250 kilometres north of Montreal. Dozens of others are traversing the same stretch of ice, but I cannot see another soul. They are out there in the squall somewhere, drawn to this trek, like me, by the vision of an Innu doctor who believes walking can help guide people toward well-being.

In the spring of 2008, depressed over the end of his second marriage and drained by an exhausting work schedule, Stanley Vollant, Quebec’s first Aboriginal surgeon, set out to complete the Camino Francés pilgrimage into Spain at a marathon runner’s pace. After twelve forty-two-kilometre days, stubbornly ignoring excruciating pain in his shin, he developed a serious infection that almost turned into necrotizing fasciitis—but his fainting spells and throbbing feet had an upside. One night in a mountain refuge, in a feverish dream, Vollant saw himself walking in the woods with Aboriginal youth and elders, away from alcohol and drugs, refreshing their bodies, minds, and spirits. Now he is in the middle of a five-year, 5,000-kilometre series of walks between every First Nations community in Quebec and Labrador and a few in Ontario and New Brunswick.

I first heard about the Innu Meshkenu (Innu Trail) project in 2010. Vollant and I spoke on the phone, and he invited me to join a walk. Then he returned to his busy life, lecturing at the Université de Montréal medical school, conducting clinics in remote Aboriginal communities, spending time with his three children, and walking more than 1,000 kilometres a year, while I got bogged down at my desk.

My dream job, editing a national magazine, was turning into a nightmare. The work—spinning stories for sponsors—felt increasingly dishonest, and the dissonance between what I believed in and what I was doing from nine to five spilled into my home life. My wife, daughters, friends, and family were losing patience with my broken-record complaints. For months, I had alleviated the stress by taking long lunch hour runs. Then I tore the meniscus of my right knee, painfully albeit comically, by sitting down on the ground awkwardly at a folk music festival. (It was noon; I hadn’t been drinking.) On the cusp of forty, it was a sign of aging and, clearly, time for a different approach.

In search of direction, I meandered throughout Ottawa whenever I had downtime, following desire paths across railroad corridors and reedy creeks. I skipped sessions at conferences to roam around unfamiliar cities, and assigned myself travel articles anchored by hikes. Intent on following transects people seldom explore by foot, I walked from my childhood home in Toronto to my parents’ cabin in Muskoka. Every time I walked, everywhere, everything seemed better. What’s more, sitting at my computer, easily distracted from the task at hand, I began tripping over reams of clinical and academic research into the physiological and psychological benefits of walking. Was this a frequency illusion, triggered by my obsession, or a prescription for change?

My conversation with Vollant continued to resonate. “When you begin a journey, you don’t know why,” he had said sagely. “The trail will show you the way.”

So I quit my job, assembled a pulk for hauling gear, and ventured off, well, not quite into the wild but certainly into the unknown.

Woodsmoke wafting skyward is a welcome sight. Even more welcoming, just a day’s walk into my new mindset: bear hugs from brawny men I had met only this morning. I have arrived at camp one.

With help from the snowmobile-riding support crew (fourteen logisticians, whose job, one tells me, is to keep us alive), men set up small wood stoves inside canvas prospector tents. Women spread fir boughs over the snow for bedding. Vollant’s winter 2013 expedition starts soft. On the first two nights, there are backcountry cabins for cooking and eating. The tea and soup are ready, I’m told, though I am cautioned not to take too much; we’re having turkey fajitas for supper.

Jean-Alfred Flamand beckons me inside. I hang my wet layers by the fire, don down pants and a puffy parka my wife calls “Fleischman” (the Manhattan doctor who moves to Alaska in Northern Exposure), and follow Flamand back out. The grey-haired fifty-three-year-old moved and spoke slowly at the send-off feast last night in Manawan; he seemed tired, frail. Here, after setting a fast pace across the lake, the man everybody calls Napech—“youngest of the elders” in Atikamekw—is downing dead trees with a chainsaw and splitting rounds of wood with one hand.

The forty-five walkers range in age from thirteen to sixty-seven, and two-thirds are women. Most are from the Atikamekw nation. For centuries, their ancestors were semi-nomadic hunter-gatherers in Quebec’s upper Saint-Maurice River basin. Manawan did not get year-round road access until 1973; another main village, Wemotaci, did not become a permanent settlement until the 1970s. Atikamekw culture remains strong: children learn their ancestral tongue before French, and hunting is a common activity among boys. Growing up on the reserve presents challenges, though, including an above-average risk of obesity and diabetes, and myriad other ailments associated with a sedentary lifestyle, poor diet, and poverty (which, in turn, can be linked to the educational and economic apartheid that defines the federal government’s relationship with Aboriginal Canadians). “We want walking to become, again, a social norm in Native communities,” says Jean-Charles Fortin, Innu Meshkenu’s project manager and an instructor in the outdoor recreation and adventure tourism program at Université du Québec à Chicoutimi. “We want people who take their ATVs 300 metres to go to the grocery store to look stupid.”

Walking was once, of course, the only way we went anywhere on land. Lacking speed and strength, humans had stamina, and that gave us an advantage over other species. But our big brains continued to evolve: we harnessed the power of horses, trains, cars. Today parents drive their children to the school bus stop half a block from home, while sidewalks are left to immigrants, the elderly, the poor. It is the destination, not the journey, that matters. Even though we say we want to slow down. Even though a solution is right there at the ends of our legs.

After day one’s seventeen-kilometre slog, my legs feel heavy, and I don’t know where to stow my pack. “Take a space in the reporters’ tent,” says Fortin, nodding toward an open flap. Inside, Mathieu-Robert Sauvé, a journalist from Montreal, is rubbing Vaseline on his feet, a veteran tactic. He joined last winter’s walk and has been writing about Vollant in French since 2008; he smiles wearily and shuffles his duffel bag into the corner to make room.

“Who else is in here? ” I ask, relieved to be bunking with somebody fluently bilingual, even if he is my rival (and has home ice advantage).

“Stanley’s there,” says Sauvé, pointing to a pile of gear right next to where my head will rest. “And Éric”—Vollant’s police officer cousin, Éric Hervieux—“is against the far wall.” Journalists are cautioned against sleeping with their subjects, but what about sleeping beside them, I wonder?

Hervieux—strong, stoic, and unintentionally intimidating—ducks into the tent, greets me with a silent nod, and lies down for a nap. Our chief is not in camp right now. Vollant took a motoneige (snowmobile) back to town to prepare for a phone call with the Canada Revenue Agency. He is so far behind on his spousal support that his passport was taken away. Since starting Innu Meshkenu in 2010, he has been trading shifts in the clinic for time on the trail, and his salary has plummeted. That has made it difficult to pay his bills, the kind of concern that tends to fade in the forest.

Broiling inside Fleischman, I leave the tent to seek out a chore. It doesn’t seem to matter what kind of shape you are in or how tired you are—even if it’s frying bannock or mending moccasins, when you get to camp you work. After taking a few ineffectual swipes at a log with a large axe, I settle into my five-foot-four city slicker niche, carrying branches to the women and distributing kindling to the men. The more I move, the more energy I feel. All of this communal bustle demonstrates a counterintuitive truth: one of the best treatments for fatigue is moderate exercise, and the easiest physical activity to encourage—so accessible and low impact that even toddlers and centenarians can do it—is walking.

The therapeutic properties of moving around on your feet are powerful, and backed by a growing mountain of data. Walking protects you from obesity, diabetes, heart attacks, and strokes. It lowers blood pressure, improves cholesterol, and builds bone mass. Walking improves your balance, preventing falls. It strengthens the muscles in your arms and legs, and gives your joints better range of motion. It eases back pain, and reduces the risk of glaucoma. In Japan, researchers studying Shinrin-yoku (forest bathing) have concluded that walking in the woods helps the body produce anti-cancer proteins. Walk for thirty minutes, five times a week, says an American educational alliance called Every Body Walk!, and the endorphin boost will ease stress, anger, and confusion. Scientists in Scotland believe walking could help stave off brain shrinkage and Alzheimer’s disease. The Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety counsels that walking “with good company and in pleasant surroundings” limits depression and anxiety, and leads to better sleep. The take-away: walking keeps you healthy and helps you live longer.

In 2011, exploring novel ways to speak directly to Canadians, Toronto physician Mike Evans made a whiteboard video called 23 and ½ Hours that has hit nearly 3.5 million views on YouTube. It argues that in that remaining half-hour each day, the single most constructive thing you can do for your health is to be active. That is a message one seldom hears in our siloed medical system, an incubator for the commercial industries that have developed around obesity, diabetes, and heart disease, with the quest for cures often driven by studies financed by pharmaceutical companies. Similarly, funders who donate millions of dollars to hospitals want to buy “fancy new machines,” says Evans, not support workaday initiatives to get people moving. “I would do a walking intervention before anything else,” he says. “Programs that get people active give you more bang for your buck. We need to create a Ministry of Habit.”

Meanwhile, changing demographics and skyrocketing rates of chronic illness threaten to unleash a perfect storm on our cardiovascular care system, reports the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada. So many people will be so sick, hospitals and health care workers won’t be able to keep up, and provincial governments won’t be able to handle the bills. “The medical system is woefully out of touch,” says Halifax psychologist Michael Vallis, a professor at Dalhousie University, and head of the Orwellian-sounding Behaviour Change Institute, which helps health care providers alter their patients’ conduct. “It’s geared toward acute problems, but lifestyle diseases are overwhelming the system.”

Among Aboriginals, there is already an outright cardiovascular crisis, and because the population is so young and growing much faster than any other group in Canada, the social and financial costs will continue to balloon if precipitators are not addressed. “We’re such a strong demographic force,” Vollant says, “that if we do something positive to change things, we’ll benefit the country as a whole.” But when he holds clinics in Pessamit, the Innu village he comes from, on the north shore of the St. Lawrence River, patients often ask for pills or an operation to remedy their ailments.

Behaviour change is hard for pretty much everybody, everywhere. Often, we are prisoners of the patterns we establish, or the patterns others impose. A reimagined future can feel out of reach, which is why Vollant says, “You always have to concentrate on the next step, the next hill you’re going to climb.” This kind of counsel might sound cheap in an airport hotel banquet room, but not in these earthy surroundings: chickadees chirp, shafts of sunlight sparkle on the snow, and each fatigued step leads to another.

On day three of the expedition, Vollant and I are pulling our sleds up a slope on a snow-covered logging road in ZEC Mazana, part of Quebec’s network of controlled hunting, fishing, and camping zones. Six feet tall and a little over his running weight at 195 pounds, our leader has light brown skin, a broad Roman nose, and kind eyes, and he keeps his long, greying hair tucked away in a bun. At forty-eight, he looks like a cross between Kobe Bryant and Mario Lemieux, and he speaks English with a warm French accent, like Roch Carrier in The Sweater. “These walks,” he says, “are all about individual and community empowerment. People start to believe in their own dreams and become more of a presence in their own lives.”

As befits a man with his feet in two worlds, Vollant wears merino wool and Gore-Tex layers under a hand-stitched jacket made from canvas, a technological revolution for the Innu when it was introduced by Europeans in the 1850s, because it enabled them to travel light. His gear, bungee wrapped under a blue tarp on a wooden toboggan like the one his grandfather used on hunting trips, includes a bulging forty-five-litre medical bag. He treats blisters during morning bush clinics and dispenses Motrin in the middle of the road. Stretching and meditation and traditional knowledge will only take you so far; sometimes, you need modern meds to keep moving.

“Don’t fight with the pain,” he says, stopping for a swig of water and a bite of moose jerky. “You have to feel some pain to know the meaning of a journey, but if there’s too much pain, if you’re stuck in the past, the bad memories will keep coming back. It’s okay to have memories, to learn from them, but if you’re too focused on the pain it’s going to get worse.”

For many of the walkers—residential school survivors, victims of domestic violence—that is critical advice. Feel the pain, understand it, then let it go. My demons are much less fierce. Yet, despite the strongest conviction that long walks could help me rekindle a sense of purpose, I had abandoned a pair of previous multi-day hikes (I called for a ride not a dozen kilometres from the family cottage in Muskoka), and the failure lingered. Heeding Vollant’s wisdom, I painstakingly deconstruct the mistakes I made: poor planning, new boots, heavy loads. I mentally scan my aches (post-op right knee fine, left knee sore). Then I will my attention to the rolling road ahead.

Embrace the transitory nature of the universe, the Buddha said (more or less), and the moments of bliss can feel heavenly. Watch out for storms, though.

Night five. The barometer is falling.

Twice a day, after breakfast and before supper, we have formed a circle and held hands. There are prayers, technical briefings about our route, and then, finally, Vollant speaks. “We are bonding,” he says each time, “like a big family.”

Coming into this trek, I had never sung “Kumbaya.” Never went to summer camp. Never said grace. Never gave props to the Creator. Last time I was in a synagogue, it was for a classmate’s bar mitzvah, nearly thirty years ago. I was not called to that bar. Spirituality has never been a ritualized practice for me. But here in the forest, a natural temple, gloved fingers entwined with those of a pair of middle-aged women one day, two teenage boys the next, I have felt it: the kinship of a shared journey. Sauvé, who shares my secularism, tells me one day, “Il n’y a pas de culture sans culte,” quoting Catholic French Canadian writer Jean-Paul Desbiens. There is no culture without cult.

In the 1960s, American psychologist Bruce Tuckman mapped out four stages of group development: forming, storming, norming, and performing. We have apparently entered stage two, and at tonight’s circle Vollant calls us out sternly. There has been some bickering among the logisticians, and many of us, including a certain branch schlepper, are not lending a hand as quickly as before. Last winter’s Innu Meshkenu expedition to Manawan almost broke apart on the fifth day, says Vollant, his voice rising. “You’re tired of yourself, and we’re tired of each other,” he says. “But remember: we are one big family.”

Yes, take care of your own needs, he says, but do not rest until everyone else is warm and comfortable. That is how Aboriginal people, and all Canadians, used to live. And that is why his grandfather—who took young Stanley hunting and fishing in the bush outside Pessamit—would be rolling over in his grave if he saw how greed and self-interest had supplanted the ethos of sharing and self-sufficiency among his people today.

“Your toboggan is an important symbol!” thunders Vollant, a preacher on the pulpit. He wants the walkers to stop asking logisticians to shuttle their sleds. “Your ancestors pulled 200 pounds in their toboggans. Without them, they would have died. Even if you only carry your water bottle in your sled, take it! We are proud people. We don’t want snowmobilers passing by and saying, ‘Look at those Indians. They’re letting machines do their work.’ ”

Trouble is, we are hard wired to let machines do the heavy lifting. Michael Vallis blames three basic rules of our internal operating system: To save calories, we are programmed to choose the path of least resistance, which is why we stand on escalators and park close to the doors at the mall. Next, we are governed by the pleasure principle: avoid pain, seek pleasure. Our choices used to be run or get eaten by a bear, or eat some berries or starve. Now we can lie on the couch gorging on jelly doughnuts without fear of being attacked by so much as a mosquito. Finally, we go for instant gratification. We don’t ask, “How will I feel tomorrow if I take a walk today? ” (This psychology lesson brings to mind an analogy shared with me by the head of research at the Toronto Rehabilitation Institute. Walking is easy, like flying, he said. It’s the takeoffs and landings that are tricky.)

The Behaviour Change Institute equips health care workers with knowledge and techniques for encouraging people to get fit and eat healthy, but Vallis also wants to address the systemic causes of the sitting disease epidemic. We need to reimagine the built environment (don’t widen roads; improve sidewalks), and remove the agricultural subsidies that support the proliferation of high-fructose corn syrup, which lights up the limbic system like cocaine. The media culture that has made “Go big or go home” a mantra is also to blame, argues Vallis. Television shows such as The Biggest Loser and programs like Weight Watchers, and a running craze in which ultra-marathons are the new marathons, set people up for failure. “We need to promote doable and sustainable activities,” he says. “Slow and steady wins the race.”

Amid this shift in medical thinking, however, University of Toronto health communication specialist Margaret MacNeill issues a cautionary note. Arthritic knees respond well to a strict workout schedule; post–heart attack exercise regimes are curative. “But if you medicalize exercise, you make it a dose,” she says, “full of little formulas, measures you might not achieve.

“With medicalization, we narrowly construct the problem and narrowly search for solutions. We lose touch with what physical activity should be: social and fun. You know the phrase ‘Exercise is medicine’? It can be, but not for everybody. Walking is more than exercise. It is life.”

The evening of Vollant’s sermon, the mood in camp is dour, so I hide away, sequestering Napech for an interview in the cook tent. Sitting on an overturned plastic bucket, he is quiet after each of my questions: eyes closed, sometimes nodding, uttering the occasional sigh. “I’m here to spend time in nature, with the children,” he says finally, through a translator. “It makes me feel younger.” More silence. Then, when I wonder whether he is dozing off, he adds, “Life is like an arrow. You have the tip, the shaft, the feathers. The tip represents the youth, the shaft represents the adults, the feathers are the elders. The arrow is balanced when all of the parts come together. That’s why it flies so well.”

I have a flash of my wife and girls, then others I am close to, and the roles we all need to play to make our families and communities work. Back at the tent, Vollant needs me. The wood is wet, I am told, so we’ll be staying up in shifts to keep the fire burning and avoid getting smoked out. “If I die before I wake,” he says, rolling into his sleeping bag, “pray the Lord my soul to take.”

“The Bible? ” I ask.

“No, Metallica. ‘Enter Sandman.’ I’m a big heavy metal guy.”

Sauvé takes the first watch, waking me at midnight. I stoke the stove, then slip outside to pee. The night is still, clear. A row of ten smoking chimneys. Snoring muffled by canvas. Half a dozen snowmobiles parked in a jumble on the logging road. It resembles a roadblock.

Vollant calls this walk, which follows a route the Innu traditionally travelled to recruit allies for their fights against the English, a mission of peace. Since he started Innu Meshkenu in October 2010, walking 620 kilometres, mostly alone, from Natashquan, Quebec, to Baie-Comeau, near Pessamit, in twenty-three days, he has completed seven treks, with more people joining each expedition. This winter’s walk is the largest yet. It is like Survivor, only the goal is to get everybody to stay on the island. Vollant has seven additional legs planned, including a fall 2014 route that swings by Parliament Hill. He has been asked by the New Democrats and the Liberals to run for federal and provincial office (and has his eyes on a health minister’s portfolio), but he is a decade away from even considering such a shift. “For me, it’s important to finish things before starting new ones. Finishing Innu Meshkenu will give me better knowledge of my country, of my people, and of the real challenges people are facing.”

Wandering through the encampment, I think about the men and women inside each tent, and the stories they have told me on this trip. Nathalie Dubé started drinking heavily while living with her abusive husband; now separated and on her second walk with Vollant, she is sober and 100 pounds lighter. Daven Petiquay, seventeen, is the type of tough-looking, long-haired teen I would dodge in the city; he didn’t say much to me initially, but yesterday we fell into the same rhythm on the road and talked for three hours, about hockey and his plan to become a wilderness guide. Alexandra Awashish, thirty-eight, a former band council adviser in Wemotaci, has four kids and lives on social assistance; her feet are sore, her body hurts, but in her head “everything is going into the right place.” She often wears a Superman cape when she walks and says she plans to run for chief.

Things are starting to feel right for me, too. I started the journey as a mildly neurotic urban professional, but as the days beat on, the lines blur. I leave Fleischman in its stuff sack, join men hunting partridge and foraging for firewood, and crack jokes in halting grade nine French, at one point pantomiming Hervieux using his police badge to confiscate a box of fried chicken: “Venir avec moi, poulet frit!” I am the one initiating bear hugs now.

After Vollant’s pep talk, despite a smoky night (and a reprimand from my tent mates), the 5 a.m. reveille sparks a resilient energy. Breakfast and teardown proceed with cheerful efficiency, and I cover two dozen kilometres like an arrow, pulling my sled the entire distance, except on downhills, where I unbuckle my waist belt, hop on the back, and rumble down at speeds reaching forty kilometres an hour, whooping wildly.

Tonight’s destination is the community hall in the village of Lac-Saint-Paul, where for the first time on this trip there will be a pay phone for calling home, a depanneur, indoor plumbing, and a dry floor for us to sleep on—all crammed together, a jumble of bodies, like in some kind of emergency shelter. A week ago, this scenario would have sent me fleeing, but ascending the next snowy hill, undeterred by what might be around the corner, I grasp at last that walking is a way to push toward change at a moderate pace, to leave one comfort zone and begin to forge another.

The next morning, fuelled by rabbit pie and spaghetti with moose sauce, we cross frozen Lac-Saint-Paul and zigzag along a series of secondary highways, leaving behind Atikamekw territory and moving deeper into Anishinabe land. Pulks don’t glide well on gravel shoulders, so the logisticians load our sleds into a cube van, and we average twenty-seven kilometres a day for five days.

Fortin’s trailer blows an axle, which breaks just outside the town of Mont-Laurier, a snowmobile touring mecca that may have more welders per capita, he posits, than anywhere else in Canada; the unit is roadworthy again in a few hours. Near the tiny village of Montcerf-Lytton, the proprietor of Fromagerie la Cabriole chases a couple of walkers (he had read about the project in a local newspaper) and hands over a sack of chèvre made with port. A stray dog, a dead ringer for the Littlest Hobo, joins the expedition that day, staying with us throughout the final week. These are random occurrences, of course, but stringing them together, like stones leading across a river, it is hard not to ascribe meaning to them.

After a one-day break on the Kitigan Zibi reserve, we have permission from Quebec’s Fédération des clubs de motoneigistes to travel along one of the province’s main snowmobile routes for the last few days, through a wildlife reserve, to the Anishinabe village of Rapid Lake. We number fewer at this point; not even Vollant’s toenail removal operations could keep some walkers on their feet. Those of us who continue struggle after the break. There are long, steep hills to climb, and though some rare bright sunshine allows us to strip down to T-shirts, it also makes the snow soggy and the pulks harder to pull.

We have been at this for two weeks now, and every morning still brings a new series of challenges. At one stop, a wet, weary evening when the temptation to huddle in my sleeping bag with a book grows strong, I find myself at the woodpile amid a ring of shining headlamps, where Super Alexandra shows me how to rotate a log to find the grain and strike hard with a heavy axe blade at a slight angle. I misfire a few times, then find the sweet spot and start splitting rounds with one swing. “You,” she says, “would make a good Indian.”

On our final night together, we gather around a bonfire in the middle of the circle. As semis roar past on Highway 117, just beyond the edge of camp, Napech and the other elders recite prayers in Atikamekw and French. Then a logistician from Manawan drums and sings a rousing song, his metronomic strokes and gruff, undulating falsetto—“Ya hey-ya-hey hey-ya, ya hey-ya-hey hey-ya”—rising above the crackling of dry, dead branches. Vollant nods to the beat, arms crossed, head down. When the song ends, he asks everyone to take a turn speaking. For my part, I thank my fellow marcheurs for sharing their land and culture, for overturning stereotypes I had harboured, for helping me learn a few things about myself. Fortin translates my final words: more Canadians should have an experience like this.

“Listen to me,” Vollant then says quietly, peering around the circle, looking everybody in the eyes, the firelight reflecting off his bright yellow parka. “I’m speaking as a physician.

“Right now, we feel really good because of the endorphins we’ve generated. This sense of well-being can last for three or four weeks, but then you can fall into a deep depression. It happens to Olympic athletes, to people who climb Mount Everest. It’s normal, not a sign of weakness.”

Heads hang down, boots kick at the snow. Hours away from our triumphant walk into Rapid Lake, this is not what we want to hear. But most of us are starting to figure out that on its own, the act of putting one foot in front of the other cannot solve anything. That this walk does not really have a finish line. When you get home, rest for a couple of days, recommends Vollant. Drink lots of water; wean yourself off high-carb meals. Talk to people if you feel troubled. Then, when your blisters have healed, he says, keep on walking.

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  • Sue Regan Kenney

    Beautifully written. As a seasoned pilgrim (have walked the Camino 10 times) I walk in the forest all the time and for the last 2 years have been barefoot. There is a host of benefits to being barefoot or with moccasins that help our body to become stronger, flexible, supple and balanced. And, we can help our body to heal itself with minerals and negatively charged ions from the ground. I believe there is a co-relation between walking and creativity so I created a foundation with a mandate to pay artists to walk called Vision One Walk. The health care system would see huge benefits to creating walking programs as part of the healing process and teaching people about the advantages of going barefoot. Would love to talk more about this with you.
    Sue

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