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Illustration by Mary Kirkpatrick

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There’s an art to travel; anyone who has left home with a backpack and a passport will tell you that. But recently, I’ve learned there’s also an art to staying put.

Our COVID months have been hard. An arts business we nurtured for 26 years now hangs on by a thread. For the first time in my life I’ve learned what it feels like to live in a state of constant anxiety. Reaching out to others for emotional support is something I’ve never really learned to do. In past years, backpacking trips were an escape from the stresses of life: These days, that’s not an option.

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But we live near the Humber River in Toronto, and each day since March I’ve walked its banks. A two-hour circular route – down the west side across the bridge at Old Mill Road and back up the east – that has become a daily pilgrimage. A means of healing and escape.

There are memories I’ve made over these months of gradual exploration – quite different from the intense memories of world travel, but equally profound. One sunny day, I watched a young couple teach their three-year-old to skip, and realized that in a different year she would have learned that skill in daycare and this time together would not have been theirs. One early morning, I gazed across the water as three elderly gentlemen stripped to their boxers, giggling, and waded in to swim. On a walk in July, a sudden downpour sent me running for shelter under the overhanging roof of the closed bathrooms. I was soon joined by others and we shared a memorable hour together, telling stories while drenched to the skin and standing six feet apart.

When we travel the world, we offer ourselves a brief glimpse of lives very different from our own. I’ve come to realize that by walking the river near my home daily, and waiting in stillness and silence, I can still find adventures – less frequent and less intense than those of the international traveller, but amassing over time, nonetheless.

The Humber River may not be a rainforest in Costa Rica, but it has its own stunning beauty, something I had never noticed before. There are hummingbirds, belted kingfishers, orioles, northern flickers, cranes and quite possibly a pair of merlin falcons to be found along it. Three times I’ve seen deer and once I watched in wonder as a snapping turtle laid its eggs and buried them. Anyone who walks this stretch of the river knows there is a man who builds the most stunning rock sculptures on the east banks. Towering, balancing edifices so perfectly in harmony with nature and so clearly a love song to the river. Heavy rainfall washes them away periodically and he rebuilds.

Rebuilding is something all of us do. Not with rock sculptures – with ourselves.

When you travel the world, you see each new thing as a snapshot and move on. Revisiting my river each day, I’ve been witness to the process of transformation. The first buds on trees that now change colour with the fall. The goslings, now grown and indistinguishable from their parents. There’s a magic to our seasons in Canada. The snow seems impossible during the heat of summer and when the riverbanks appear barren in early spring it is unthinkable that in a matter of weeks they will teem with new life. Even the most unimaginable transformations can happen – a reminder we could all use from time to time.

The Humber River became a conduit for me as time passed, and in more ways than one. The mental stresses we struggle through can be eased when we think about others instead - so, I walked along the river to deliver my first homemade bread to a friend. As spring turned into summer, I meditated by the banks of the river, coming to terms with lost dreams and learning to move on. As I worked my way through dozens of audio books, the Humber River became the Karakoram mountains, our sugar maples the towering Douglas firs of British Columbia and our multiuse pathway the route between Jerusalem and Sepphoris. Rivers and stories each bear us elsewhere – away from and, sometimes, into ourselves.

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Revisiting a treasured landscape is like revisiting a favourite novel: There are always fresh angles from which to view it. As spring transformed itself into the stillness of summer, I started to wonder at the dedications on benches and trees along the Humber. One of the inscriptions reads: “In Memory of Alice Emma Kvedaras, for whom this place held a lifetime of happy memories.” I wondered at these words over the days that followed. How could a single landscape – in a world packed full of vast and varied landscapes – be sufficient to hold a lifetime of memories? I’m still wondering – and now see that Alice Emma Kvedaras has something to teach me.

I’m writing this piece down on the river. Moments ago, a September downpour took me by surprise, so I sheltered in a roofed play structure, my laptop balanced on my knees. A girl walking past with a huge red umbrella looked up at me and smiled. Perhaps she is also a traveller, discovering the landscape of this river anew each day as her life intersects with others. Perhaps she is making note of the woman writing atop the play structure, sheltering from the rain. Adding my small eccentricities to the rich tapestry of her own river encounters.

When “six feet apart” first became a thing, I thought of how far down we dig to sink a coffin. Six feet apart felt like six feet under. Now, when I hear this phrase, I’m reminded of how close we are to one another, and how small distances hold the possibility of adventure and healing. Our worlds may have contracted, but those contracted worlds are microcosms of the bigger one we live in and just as immense.

Julie Hartley lives in Toronto.

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