Click here to see all the pictures from the tour!
This tour will be different from the last. I'm being accompanied by Colin Hunter (a reporter from the Kitchener/Waterloo Record), and by a photographer who is wearing somewhat fragile footwear.
On the bus to Forest Hill we undertake the difficult task of simultaneously conducting an interview, feeling each other out, trying not to annoy the other people on the bus, and posing for mostly-authentic but still slightly artificial photographs. *I* am just writing a blog entry, so I can afford to take this tour without having anything interesting to report. But this is part of their job: "Look out the bus window, like you're looking at something," says the photographer, occasionally moving Colin's legs out of the shot.
I've done some "BusWalk Soul Searching," partly under the pressure of needing to EXPLAIN my goals, and deciding what exactly I hope to accomplish. I DO want to see different neighbourhoods and become better acquainted with Kitchener/Waterloo, with all its quirks and contrasting personalities (not to mention rich geography), but I recognize that endless rows of identical houses are not fun to walk through, landmarks are only interesting when they're unintentional, and I can only see small strips of each area I explore. I can't walk on every street and poke into every cranny, and I don't intend to visit the same area twice unless I see something REALLY different. That would, in some vague way, violate "the point."
And while the prospect of a dull walk through undistinguished suburbia doesn't daunt ME, I don't want to inflict such a thing on the photographer and the reporter, no matter how "game" they are. It's Friday evening, after all, when most people are gearing up for a good time. But we had to pick a weekday; it's not my fault this route doesn't have a Sunday schedule.
In any case, this time I've done some preparation. I've looked at a satellite map and tried to find areas that promise something unusual (huge parks riddled with trails in particular) and I've tried to chart a sensible route between those areas. I've decided, sort of arbitrarily, that I must see where Victoria Street ends. It's one of Kitchener's major roads and I can't imagine that it actually "ends" anywhere. Thanks, satellite map!
* * *
Maybe the Forest Hill Mall -- our drop-off point -- is unpopular, or maybe we scared everybody away. By the time we arrive the bus is otherwise empty. This mall was once a collection of huge stores but is now a single, mammoth store that appears to contain all the food in the world. We're only looking for water and camera batteries, however, before wandering behind the building to see what we're not supposed to see. We instantly strike it rich: a lush marsh full of dragonflies, bull-rushes, and crickets trying desperately to achieve orbit.
The reporter has insisted that they don't want me to tailor the experience for them, so with some encouragement -- and an offer to go first in case of swamp or quicksand -- I lead them through the marsh to a shy little bike path. Already we're in a curious place I've never seen before, this isolated gravel walkway between bright stream and hill that only locals probably bother with.
Soon we discover how "Forest Hill" probably got its name: a huge hill, right in the middle of the residential area, leads us up and up into forests and to a grand view of the city. The photographer declares that this is a money shot, and he promptly leaves and wishes us a happy journey. We've lost a fellow traveller. He has plans, or he thinks we're crazy.
* * *
If there is a hell for me, it's an endless walk through suburbia on a hot day. I know I want to go in a northwesterly direction, but whenever we find a street that goes that way it loops around and takes us back almost to where we started. We see lots of those portable basketball hoops that I started noticing about five years ago, which blossom in driveways and then quickly rust away where they stand. They seem even lonelier than the ubiquitous abandoned shopping carts. They're insufficient, they didn't deliver their promise of safe, eternal entertainment for the children, and children always grow up and get tired of driveway basketball anyway.
Just a few youngsters are wandering around, looking restless to get away. "Claire, move your f*cking car!" yells one. A hunched-up lady in an orange top pushes a shopping cart downhill. Several of the houses in this area are of a strange "sperm whale" design, with windowless, wood-shingled second storeys jutting forward in a blind, sinister, and frankly ugly way. They're probably cool to live in, and very dark. Neither of us have seen such houses before.
* * *
We cross Highland Road and start the second part of our journey. The "Stop the City" barn used to be out here, a landmark for dismayed anti-expansionists. Now the barn is gone and the city -- of course -- is here. If I needed a lesson about the speed of population growth, I receive it: the satellite photo I studied showed fields and construction sites in this area; now we see houses in every direction. I must learn more about architecture so I can use some distinguishing words instead of just saying "houses" all the time.
But not all residential areas are impersonal and sad; this is a beautiful place, really, built on the rolling hills that I consider distinct to "Southern Ontario." We live in these hills and valleys all the time, but we stop noticing them until we leave home and then come back, or until we need to drive up one of them when it's covered with ice. From the top of the one hill we watch the new roads and houses descend into a valley, then rise up again to our level on the other side.
They haven't killed the forest yet so we decide to enjoy it. We turn left and find ourselves deep inside a woodsy dog-walker's dream. Makeshift trails join and spread out as far as we can see, which isn't very far even though the trees are short on branches and are losing their leaves. The land rises and falls so constantly.
Then, on a random path, we find the hidden gem, the truly magical place that makes every kilometer worthwhile. Between the forest and a row of backyards is an unnatural, stagnant pond, long and narrow, asserting itself against much the stronger forces of construction and earth removal. A frog seeks out dragonflies and other tasty insects. There is an ecosystem here and it appears to be thriving instead of fading away; there's even a miniature wooden pallet here, should you want to sail the small but complex perimeter and have a "Huckleberry Finn adventure," like we are.
This place is touching. It is not for tourists. It is for kids who read Harry Potter and for reluctant cynics who go on BusWalk tours.
We find "the end of Victoria Street." My heart sinks a bit when I see that the street hasn't ended after all; it stretches off to the horizon, newly paved, carving a straight line into the largely unclaimed and unspoiled wedge of farmland that used to be out here. Soon there will be houses, sidewalks, more houses, and power lines here. We'll need to invent more distinguishing, hair-splitting adjectives just to tell them apart.
A row of orange pylons tells us that it's time to go home.
* * *
"Go home" is easier said than done. We are a shockingly long way from the city center, though up here -- in the heights of "Forest Hill" -- you can barely see the taller downtown landmarks.
So we start back. We happen upon a community trail that the reporter vaguely remembers, and we assume that it will eventually join the well-travelled "Iron Horse Trail," which will represent the end of our evening trailblazing.
But there is still a long way to go. Here is one of those streams that has been penned in with concrete; we leave the path and climb down into the channel, where generations of kids practiced bike tricks and sprayed graffiti on the walls. Some of it is surprisingly good. I have an okay appreciation for non-anatomical street art.
I begin to wonder about the health of the water, as my left eye -- closest to the stream -- starts to run uncontrollably. Maybe I touched a pollinating plant and unconsciously rubbed my face. Half blind we pass under roads, through tunnels, on our way home. We keep thinking that the next overpass is the one we'll recognize, the one with the oriental restaurant on it. It never seems to be.
We debate which side of the stream the path will be on when it joins the Iron Horse Trail; the reporter and I have different recollections. I bet my honour that it is on the right-hand side. The path teases us at each overpass, crossing to one side then the other, while we take the straightest route down the concrete channel, descending from far-off Forest Hill.
Eventually, the reporter wins my honour. Three hours after setting out, and now in twilight, we return to familiarity.