Brantford to Ohsweken: The Longest Walk

When I was walking yesterday, I decided to structure this blog post differently than the rest. I was still thinking about what I’d experienced the day before, during my tour of the Mohawk Institute building in Brantford: how walking through that building made me feel, what it made me think about. And how it convinced me even more that the project envisioned by “Saving the Evidence”–developing a museum or interpretive centre in the former residential school in Brantford–is extraordinarily important.

So: if you’re reading this, think about making a donation to the “Save the Evidence” campaign. You can donate online here or you can send a cheque to the Woodland Cultural Centre, P.O. Box 1506, Brantford, Ontario N3T 5V6. You don’t have to make a huge gift. I’m walking about 300 kilometres during this pilgrimage through the Haldimand Tract. If you gave a nickel for each kilometre I’m walking, that adds up to just $15. Sure, it doesn’t sound like a lot, but it’s more than just the money (although the money’s important): it’s a sign of your participation in this project, your recognition that what happened in residential schools was a tremendous wrong, and that you want to have a different kind of relationship with First Nations from now on.

Go ahead, make the gift: I’ll wait. Here’s a photograph of some pretty roses to look at while you’re making your donation.

Feels good to contribute, doesn’t it? Thank you to everyone who has made donation to “Save the Evidence”–I’m grateful for your support, and the good people at the Woodland Cultural Centre are grateful for your support, too.

Yesterday’s walk was long–the longest walk I’ve ever made, in fact: 37 kilometres. It wasn’t supposed to be that arduous. Google told me it was only 22 kilometres from Brantford to Six Nations. But I didn’t take the route Google recommends. Instead, I followed the Grand Valley Trail along the river for most of the day. It was a beautiful walk (until I reached Brant County Highway 54), but it was also long and difficult.

I left my mother’s house at about 7:30 and headed towards the river and a place where I’d be able to get up on the path that runs along the top of a flood-protection dike along the Grand. I’d taken my friend Geoff’s advice and taken a lot of stuff out of my pack, so it was lighter and I was feeling pretty good. I walked past the hospital and down a steep hill I used to ride my bike down on the way to school. I traveled along the riverside footpath, past cyclists and dog walkers, underneath the Lorne Bridge (the major river crossing in Brantford) and over an old railway bridge that’s been converted for pedestrian use. A fly fisherman was trying his luck downstream. On the bridge I met a fellow who was watching fish spawning in the shallows below. He pointed them out to me. We talked for quite a while, but he didn’t want his picture taken. He’d been caught by some internet phishing scam, he said, and he was extra careful now about the information he shares online. Fair enough.

I’d been walking for about an hour at this point and I needed to find a washroom. The situation got more urgent with every step I took. It wasn’t something I could deal with by ducking behind a tree for 30 seconds, either. By the time I got to Lion’s Park, it was all I could think about. I came this close to having to squat behind a bush and use the little plastic shovel I carry for such emergencies (I hadn’t taken Geoff’s advice about leaving it behind). I tried the arena at Lion’s Park. It was locked. I was out of options and it looked like I was, well, shit out of luck. I headed for the trees along the river, hoping the city crew working nearby wouldn’t catch me in the act. Then, suddenly, salvation:

The faith keeper wanted me to ask for gratitude when I offer tobacco to the Creator. Well, I can tell you that I’m grateful to whoever put that portapotty there, in the corner of a baseball diamond, and for whoever left the gate open so I could get to it without climbing the fence. Because of their thoughtfulness, disaster was averted.

I climbed the long hill on Mount Pleasant Street and turned onto Tutela Heights Road, which is named after the Tutelo village that used to be here, on the bluffs over the river. I walked past the Bell Homestead. That’s the house where the parents of Alexander Graham Bell, the inventor of the telephone, lived when they immigrated from Scotland. Although Bell actually made the first working telephone in Boston, apparently he came up with the idea right here, in his “thinking place” overlooking the river. There’s an interesting museum there, but I figured (rightly, as it turned out) that my walk was going to be longer than anticipated. I did chat briefly with a gardener (dressed in period clothing) and got directions to the Grand Valley Trail footpath that was just ahead on the left.

The footpath took me through pines, then a mixed hardwood forest, then alongside a cornfield before ducking back into the forest again. It was lovely: cool and shady, with birds singing all around me. Then it ended, and I was on busy Cockshutt Road. I followed the trail directions and turned on Newport Road. There the trail seemed to end. It was supposed to lead me up onto Brant County Road 18 on the bridge above. Where was I supposed to go? Eventually I figured it out: I crossed the ditch, scrambled through the thick brush, and climbed the steep slope onto the bridge itself. Problem solved. And I saw some pretty cool graffiti underneath the bridge, including the Haudenosaunee Confederacy flag and some good advice.

Brant County Highway 18 was busy and I was glad to get to the turnoff onto Salt Springs Church Road. A woman was selling strawberries at the corner but I wasn’t in a position to buy any (I couldn’t carry them) and she wasn’t in a conversational mood. She definitely didn’t want her picture taken, either. I kept walking. It wasn’t long before I got to an old Methodist church that had started out in 1822 as a mission intended to Christianize the Indigenous people in the area. I sat on the steps and ate some lunch (mostly trail mix). There’s a historical plaque explaining the church’s history. It says that “After 1834, a rapidly increasing proportion of its membership consisted of white settlers who were replacing the Indians in the area.” I was irritated. First of all, I thought, those settlers were actually squatters, homesteading without permission on land that had been deeded to the Six Nations. And that verb, “replacing,” neatly normalizes an injustice, turning it into some kind of unstoppable historical process, something that just happened and not something people did to other people. When are we going to start telling the truth about our own past? We can’t move forward until we come to understand, without distortions or lies, what has actually taken place in Canada. I know, it’s silly to get mad about a historical plaque, but it’s part of a pattern. After all, my own five decades of ignorance about what happened in the Haldimand Tract is one of the main reasons I’m making this walk.

I was passing a farm when I encountered my first angry dogs of the day. One was a little timid, staying back behind the other, who was bolder (and, I think, angrier). I made calming sounds and threw them each a dog biscuit. It worked: they were still angry, but I got past them without getting bitten. Before I walk again, I’ll have to dip into my stash of Milk Bones and fill my pockets. A bad bite could end this pilgrimage, and I don’t want that to happen.

Salt Springs Church Road was nice but I’d already walked 22 kilometres and I knew that I had a long way to go. The map told me to stay on that road, but I saw a sign: no exit. What should I believe? The map or the sign? The sign, always the sign. The signs know. The map doesn’t. So I turned early and headed up to Brant County Highway 54.

Brant County Highway 54 just about finished me. It’s a very busy road. I was walking on the shoulder, of course, and cars and trucks were roaring past just feet away. The shoulder itself was made of a deep, soft, sandy gravel that made walking very difficult–kind of like walking on a beach, but for 10 or more kilometres. I thought there might be a place to sit and get something cool to drink in Onondaga, but there wasn’t. So I sat under a tree and called Christine. One of our cats is very sick and if he doesn’t improve we’ll have to say goodbye to him before I get back to Saskatchewan, and I needed to hear how he’s doing.

Then I was back on the road, stumbling up the shoulder. My feet felt like someone had been hitting them with a hammer and I was getting badly chafed. Then I ran out of water–because I drank it, this time, not because I spilled it on someone’s floor. I stopped at a variety store at Six Nations and bought some more. I told the woman behind the counter what I was up to and gave her a card. My camera’s battery was flat and my phone was on life support, so I didn’t get a photograph of her. I stopped at a gas station to use the washroom and bought a Coke and some sweetgrass. Then I kept going.

I didn’t get any more photographs of anything, including the Solidarity Day celebration at Six Nations, but I can tell you about it. It was like a fair. There were rides and cotton candy and booths where people were selling all kinds of different things. People of every age were there and everyone seemed to be having a good time. I saw the elected chief in the distance but I didn’t get a chance to introduce myself to her. Don’t send an introvert to a party. (Introverts unite, separately, in your own homes.)

I sat under a marquee and watched a blues band tear through a mix of original and classics like “My Babe” and “Staggerlee.” They were really good. I wondered whether Robbie Robertson was right about house parties at Six Nations–that they turn into jam sessions because so many people here are excellent musicians. I talked to a few people but didn’t explain why I was there or why I’d walked from Brantford. The reason: I looked around and saw people who were the right age to be survivors of the Mohawk Institute and I didn’t want to bring the shadow of that terrible place into the celebration. I even regretted wearing my “Save the Evidence” t-shirt. I think that was a mistake. After the band finished its set, I set off. The inn where I’m staying was still six kilometres away.

It was a long, long walk into Ohsweken, mostly because I was exhausted. I encountered another angry dog, but the busy traffic on Chiefswood Road kept him at a distance. I met the first pedestrians I’d seen since I left Brantford: three young guys who were part of a road-construction crew. “You’re the first people I’ve seen walking since I left Brantford,” I told them. “What?” they asked. I don’t think the idea of walking to Ohsweken from Brantford made any sense to them. Maybe they were right; maybe it doesn’t.

I’m staying at The Bear’s Inn, just on the edge of Ohsweken. It’s very nice, but to get breakfast or supper I have to walk back into the village. Last night I was just too tired to do any such thing. I took off my boots, stripped off my sweaty clothes, and went to bed. I woke up tired this morning and I have to go into Ohsweken to get some coffee. That’s okay. I’m here. I made it. And tomorrow I’ll be back on the road again.

My friend Kathleen asked what I think about when I’m walking along these roads and paths. The answer is, it depends. If I’m on a Grand Valley Trail footpath, I’m usually thinking about how lovely it is and where the waymarkers are. If I’m on a busy road, I hope the drivers see me and that nobody makes a sudden lurch towards the shoulder when I’m in the way. If I’m getting tired I wonder how far I’ve walked and how far I still have to walk and I keep checking the GPS app on my phone. At intersections I think about which way to turn and hope my map can give me some guidance. Sometimes I sing, usually old Lightfoot songs. Sometimes I’m thinking about this blog and what I’m going to write and trying to remember the things I’ve seen and people I’ve met. Sometimes I’m not thinking about anything in particular at all.  For a while, earlier in this walk, I’d be occasionally overwhelmed with sadness and shame because of the history of colonization, because my ancestors did things in my name (stealing land, building residential schools) that I think are wrong. At those times I have to remind myself that I’m not responsible for those things that happened in the past, but that I am responsible for what I do now that I now those things happened. I didn’t feel that sadness and shame yesterday, though. Maybe that’s because of my tour of the Mohawk Institute. Or maybe it’s becaue I met people at the Woodland Cultural Centre who were generous and friendly. I don’t know. If this is a spiritual journey, as the faith keeper told me it would be, then maybe I’ve turned some kind of corner and left something behind. If that’s the case, I’m happy to lose it.

5 thoughts on “Brantford to Ohsweken: The Longest Walk

  1. Hi Ken. I thought this quote from Kierkegaard apropos of today’s blog on turning corners and leaving some things behind:

    Above all, do not lose your desire to walk. Every day I walk myself into a state of well-being and walk away from every illness. I have walked myself into my best thoughts, and I know of no thought so burdensome that one cannot walk away from it. -Soren Kierkegaard


  2. See…you could have left the little shovel behind and trusted that your Camino would provide!

    Well done on your longest walk. I was thinking about your progress on my walk today. Reading this post when I returned home helped me to recall what I’d been thinking about as I walked. Many things and no things…the pleasure of the walk. You will no doubt recall the three emotional stages of the Camino Frances, and it sounds like you are once again passing through and between them as you walk…turning corners. Very special Ken. This is turning into a wonderful journey. Walk on amigo.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. A long, long walk today Ken…. or a journey. It is all good.

    Your thoughts today took me back to Benjamin Franklin…
    “Being ignorant is not so much a shame, as being unwilling to learn.”

    Carry on…..

    Liked by 1 person

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