- Transcontinental Pedestrians: Canada's First Cross-country Walk (1906)
Ever since Terry Fox's Marathon of Hope, cross-country treks have become increasingly popular as fundraisers for all manner of causes, from the fight against cancer and HIV/AIDS to the support of social agencies like Big Brothers. But long before Fox, other Canadians made their way across the country by their own steam simply for adventure, a change of scenery, and self-accomplishment. My late aunt Dora Easto and her friend Frances Routledge rode single-speed CCM bicycles from Toronto to Vancouver in the summer of 1926, carrying their clothes, food, tent and cooking utensils with them in wire baskets they fastened to the handlebars. Whenever I expressed my admiration for such an arduous journey, Dora would shrug and say it was nothing, that others were doing the same in that era. But if they were, there is very little record of these adventures, the cultures that inspired them, and the effect they had upon those who conducted them and the people they met along the way.
In Transcontinental Pedestrians, George Hart has begun to fill that gap by piecing together one such remarkable journey early in the twentieth century, the walk of John Hugh Gillis from Sydney, Nova Scotia, to Vancouver. Gillis originally set out to walk with two friends to San Francisco and back within a year for a prize of $1, 200 put up by three Cape Breton gamblers. But when the friends broke up in Montreal, Gillis decided to go to Vancouver instead, and he was soon pursued by Charles Jackman, Hart's father-in-law. Jackman caught Gillis in northern Ontario, and the pair completed the trip to Vancouver together. It took Gillis nine months from Sydney, Jackman five and a half [End Page 344] months from Montreal. Neither attempted the return by foot. Hart has augmented Jackman's diary and photo album of the trip with contemporary newspapers and family recollections.
Given the sorry state of roads in Canada at the time, the walkers covered most of the distance along the transcontinental railways. In the long stretches between cities and towns, the walkers were highly dependent upon the stations, railway hotels, maintenance yards, and boarding cars (where section men and other maintenance workers lived) for food and shelter. Jackman's diaries provide a fascinating window on the engineering and social organization of the railways in those years, as well as a caustic 'where to eat in travellers' Canada.'
The diaries and Hart's reconstruction also illuminate the strength of the British-Canadian, bachelor sports culture of the time. Gillis, Jackman, and Gillis's earlier companions who abandoned the walk were athletes. In many of their stops along the way, the men would encounter and socialize with former teammates or receive help from local sportsmen. After he reached Vancouver, Gillis continued his championship track and field career for several Vancouver clubs. (He has been inducted into the BC Sports Hall of Fame.) If the railroad bound Canada together technologically and socially during the Laurier years, sport did the same. It was already an established transcontinental social network, especially for unmarried, British young men.
Both Gillis and Jackman had been to western Canada previously, but to them nothing compared to the experience of encountering the landscape at the pace of a walk. 'To go through the Rockies by train is a vast treat, and one is greatly impressed by the grandeur of the scenery,' Jackman observed in his diary. 'I have made several such trips and thought I had seen all there was to be seen, but one doesn't realize the glory of it until one walks through. To look at the mountains on either side of me for some time and then to continue walking makes me feel very much akin to a caterpillar crawling over a tent.'
Transcontinental Pedestrians is not only a well-reconstructed story, but a reminder that the magnificent beauty of this country is best experienced at the pace of self-locomotion.