From my house, it’s a 28-kilometer round-trip walk to Kazoku Restaurant. All for a bowl of ramen. It’s not the distance that is challenging though. It’s the territory to be traversed, territory that is the exclusive domain of trains and cars and trucks.
My trek from the Wolseley neighbourhood, nestled alongside Winnipeg’s downtown core, will take on a cross-section cut through the city to a destination not too far from its perimeter. Kazoku and my ramen will be found on Pembina Highway, close to Bison Drive and at the foot of the University of Manitoba.
How many thousands of times, over how many years have I commuted to this most remote of all university campuses? But never on foot. Until today. In the middle of winter. Thirty-six years after graduation.
The journey begins, easily enough, by following the straight-line trajectory of the BNSF (Burlington Northern Santa Fe) rail line. It slices north to south through the city, across the Assiniboine River and residential River Heights all the way to the United States. The right-of-way cuts a broad swath through the neighbourhood. The backyards and laneways of modest homes look onto the rail line. Occasionally, the development pattern reverses with front yards looking onto the railway park land. For the most part, it’s a manicured view with mature trees and tire swings. But there are also bright red silos filled with who knows what? And there is the rumble of diesel locomotives shunting strings of graffitied tank cars back and forth. I know them well as they pass not too far from our own Wolseley home. What loads they might be carrying remains an explosive mystery.
Things start to get dicey as I cross Taylor Street and right behind it, the main line of the CNR railway. Here, the BNSF tracks I am following cut at right angles across the busy east-west CNR main line. The intersection of forged steel forms a bold cruciform against a field of crusty snow. The unintended symbolism is not lost in me. I am leaving my comfortable, day-to-day world and crossing a threshold into some otherworldly land of industry, suburbs and highways.
Gone is the straight-line comfort of the BNSF line as I divert in a south-east direction towards Kazoku. Gone, too, are any ‘normal’ street patterns. Here they come and go at will. This is the land of bays and crescents and loopy roads and dead-ends. In some respects, this is ideal walking territory where getting lost and seeing the city from an unplanned and unexpected vantage point is welcome. Yet there are real obstacles ahead. Wide rivers of asphalt cross my path. Fording their fast moving currents requires some forethought, some planning, some mapping.
Across the CNR mainline, my path takes me through a pock-marked landscape of industrial warehouses, community centers and oversized churches spread over huge fields of white. The tightness of the city is gone. There are no signs of sidewalks. Only cars with drivers quizzically examining this lone pedestrian as they whiz by.
I must cross my first barrier, Sterling Lyon Parkway – a surprisingly friendly pedestrian crossing – and enter the upscale suburban world of Linden Woods. Surprised again, I must admit this is an interesting, sylvan meander. High brick fences help to isolate a small enclave of row housing from the Parkway. I take a brief detour through this walled hamlet. Its tall conifers, rustic wood siding and touches of stone give the development a comfortable resort quality, especially so with a dusting of freshly fallen snow. It’s an unexpected find after the dreariness of the parkway expanse.
Moving on through Linden Woods, rows of houses give way to trails that follow the ‘shore’ of a finger lake. The man-made body of water, now frozen white, and the adjacent man-made hillocks, forested with pines, make for a pleasant passage through the residential enclave. But it soon peters out.
Crossing McGillivray Boulevard takes me back into the empty expanse of low-lying industrial sheds and sidewalkless roads. These lead me to the backdoor entrance of the Waverley Automall. It’s a midday, wintery scene. Cars clutter the landscape. I am the sole person wandering through the rows of new cars. Tinny music accompanies my winding route, making it all a little bit 1984-ish.
At its exit sits a decorated concrete polar bear, one of many that dot the city. This one is more forlorn than most, sitting as it does lost in the midst of busy roads, car dealerships and high-tension hydro lines. But I am lost in space as well. This is no place for pedestrians, let alone concrete polar bears.
I am at the most precarious of crossings. Bishop-Grandin Boulevard is a highway that ploughs east-west across the southern extent of Winnipeg. It is set in a wide, landscaped trench that looks pleasant enough at 80 kilometers an hour. But, as a pedestrian, it is no more than a dressed-up wasteland separating one part of the city from another. It might as well be the Berlin Wall. Any possible crossing points are set miles apart.
It is no accident that I am where I am. I need to cross this beast and, on a map, Waverley Street seems like the safest option. The street-level intersection with the highway and its traffic signals are within eye-sight of my polar bear but, what I do not see are any sidewalks leading me there or any pedestrian signals for the crossing. I make it across, of course, following along the curb of busy Waverley and carefully crossing the highway, knowing well that motorists turning left and right are totally unaware of the rebel walker.
Crossing the grassy knolls, passing by the clumps of planted forest and under the hydro pylons, a path leads me into a comfortable residential neighbourhood, Waverley Heights. I walk down Chancellor Drive and pass by Osgoode Place, names that hint at my nearness to the university and my lunch time destination. A sidewalk passes between two new stuccoed houses and deposits me at the Pembina Highway entrance to the University of Manitoba. It’s just a few minutes further to the inevitable strip mall that houses Kazoku Restaurant.
It’s been a 14.6 kilometer journey through the urban wilderness.
I supplement my steamy Miso Ramen with a side order of Takoyaki, octopus baked in wheat balls.
The route home takes me straight down Pembina Highway. This highway has no scenic pretense. To a driver, it looks ugly. To a pedestrian, it is a linear mess. Strip malls, big box stores, and heavy traffic are made no more attractive with their icing of brown sand and snow. At Bishop-Grandin, there’s a major cloverleaf with a bridge crossing and sidewalk to get me from one dismal side to the other. It’s not long before I tire of Pembina and head inland to the rail line that parallels the highway.
It’s quieter here, with Pembina’s parking lots on one side of the tracks and industrial land on the other. In the distance, down the tracks, I can see the small, grey outline of the Investors Building way, way north, downtown.
My walk along the rails leads me to the modest Maybank residential neighbourhood, small bungalows for the most part, sandwiched between the tracks and Pembina. In all my years of busing or driving down Pembina to the University of Manitoba, I never once realized there was a quiet little neighbourhood just beyond my high-speed route.
A quick exit back to Pembina Highway is necessary, so I can again cross McGillivray Boulevard before ducking into another neighbourhood, Beaumont. This leads me to yet another former adversary, the CNR mainline. I could make another illegal crossing but this edge of the tracks is lined with inviting natural wetlands, frozen for the winter. Together with countless unleashed dogs and their trailing masters, I make my way through the low bush and bullrushes paralleling the tracks. Another familiar street appears, Waverley, taking me across the tracks and into North River Heights.
My long trip is ending. The sun has just set. Street lights start to glow. The last remnants of Christmas lights are turned on as the sky turns a deep, dark blue. Home is just around the corner.