As evidenced by my last post, I’m an advocate of getting out and travelling on your own because it’s just as good, if not better, than travelling in a group. But what about exploring your own city? Here’s where the hypocrisy sets in – I very rarely go out and do things within my home city of Edmonton without the company of one or more people. I have a good group of family and friends who I can always pull a plus one out of when it comes to attending various events or outings in the city. That’s not to say I never do things alone; I go grocery shopping alone, and I’ve gone to a mall to go shopping alone once or twice.
One of my favourite ways to experience a new city while travelling is by renting a bicycle and just riding around for a few hours, or even for a full day. While public transit is obviously the fastest way to navigate a new city, you have to walk or bike to really experience it. That way, you are exposed to not only the sights, but the sounds, the smells, the wind. But yet, when living in Edmonton, I’ve opted to drive most everywhere, and the amount of exploring I’ve done, especially since moving to a neighbourhood just west of the downtown core, has been extremely limited. Even so, biking and walking are usually only forms of transportation for me and only under specific circumstances, being 1) It’s nice out and will continue to be nice out; 2) The journey is under half an hour; 3) I don’t want to pay to park where I’m going; or 4) I plan on having alcohol and thus cannot legally drive my car.
So today, the first Saturday in months where I had no commitments, plans, or unfinished tasks, I decided to change this pattern. My personal trainer had cancelled my regular Saturday appointment due to it being the August long weekend, so I didn’t even have that to break up my day. Many of my friends are also out of town for that same reason, and weren’t available to hang out. And, the forecast was calling for +25 Celsius, so there was no way I was staying in my already hot apartment all day. So I loaded my iPod with an appropriate biking playlist, pumped up my tires, strapped on my helmet and headed out to explore the city late this morning, with no intention of returning back home at any specific hour. Much like when I’m travelling, I had nowhere particular to be, no one to see, and I had nothing but time.
My first stop was the downtown City Market on 104th street. This market is one of the many spawns of the farmers’ market resurgence that’s happened in the last five years, and has grown from humble beginnings to my favourite market in Edmonton. National Geographic digital nomad, Andrew Evans (a man I was lucky enough to take travel writing workshops from at the Iceland Writers Retreat) actually called it the best farmers’ market in the world in his 2013 review.
Organic produce, hand-made crafts and jewellery, and novel food creations like my personal favourite, Chickie Dough (healthy hummus but flavoured like cookie dough) pepper the stalls. Musicians perform on every corner and I find myself almost like one of the many leashed dogs brought out by their owners to enjoy the market, completely overwhelmed by all the stimuli of sounds and smells.
The day is warm and especially so on the concrete streets, so I purchase a small cup of mint mojito gelato to cool me off. A woman passes by me carrying a puppy so small it could be a guinea pig, while children eagerly line up to have their faces painted with sparkly butterflies and Spidermans. A real foot-stomping band, The Whiskey Sheiks, perform a blues-inspired country number and I leave a twonie in their guitar case before heading into Dauphine Bakery for a coffee, and perhaps a little treat.
Since Chickie Dough were absent from today’s vendor list, I leave with a haul of fresh naan bread, home made butter chicken curry, and a container of whipped honey infused with cinnamon. The lady selling the naan and curry tries to barter me into buying more; her sales pitches and discounts, while tempting, are not feasible for my apartment-sized freezer, but I almost feel like I’m in the artisanal markets of Cusco again, trying to account for the space in my suitcase and using the minimal Spanish I know to negotiate prices.
Before I continue my adventure, I bike back home and drop off my market purchases at my apartment so they don’t start to melt and disintegrate in my rucksack due to the summer heat. I bike westward to the High Street neighbourhood and decide to lock up my bike at a “yarn-bombed” bike rack outside Mountain Equipment Co-op before exploring the upscale shopping area.
I stop into MEC to buy a new water bottle before continuing my shopping at Red Ribbon, one of my favourite Edmonton clothing stores.
I also stumble across a athletic wear shop called Elevate Active Wear, where I find a t-shirt that just feels me, ya know?
I put my purchases in my ruck sack and decide I could break for refreshments again before really getting to the exploring part, so I bike a short ways to Remedy Cafe on 124th street. I have been a fan of Remedy since my student days and spending hours at the Garneau location “studying” (eating samosas and drinking chai), but I had not yet visited the new location that is so close to home. Its interior feels newer and lacks the aging charm of its other locations, but at least I don’t doubt the cleanliness of the bathrooms – their older downtown location as well as the one in Garneau are infamous for the amount of graffiti in their bathrooms to the point it was almost a staple of their brand, until it was recently painted over. This new location has put up two chalkboards in their bathroom for people to write their messages rather than deface the walls, and the messages on the board all revolve around some form of positivity.
I order a New Belgian Snapshot wheat beer and buy a little bag of Bloom Cookie Co. chocolate chip cookies, and sit out on their patio watching the wind bring in a potential evening storm while a curious wasp hovers around the lip of my beer bottle.
After I finish my odd combination of vegan cookies and beer, I decide to head further west in search of a bike path into the river valley. The most crowded stretch of river valley bike paths close to the high level bridge and the downtown core is the only one I have actually traversed, but I know that the ravine stretches for several kilometres beyond that and it’s an area I’ve yet to explore. Of course, I have no idea where the bike path into the ravine starts, and I blindly follow a sign with a bike and an arrow on it into a ritzy Glenora neighbourhood, where everyone drives flashy cars and everyone lives in huge mansions with even bigger yards. Fortunately it’s quiet, and today, I don’t mind getting lost.
The lack of people is amazing for the river view the area lays claim to, so I pull off onto an empty park bench and snap photos of the river that divides my city in two. It’s similar to the typical postcard view of Edmonton, but the skyline is further in the distance and it almost seems like there’s nothing but untouched green for miles. I wish I had been smarter to bring a book (and bug spray) with me to this little undiscovered spot, but at least I know for next time that I don’t have to stray too far from home for that sweet sense of escape.
I finally come across a bike path at the base of a bridge on a busy street and I make the turn, whizzing down this steep hill knowing full well that this will be a much more difficult journey on the way back up! And finally, I see where the other people are – skateboarders, roller bladers, other cyclists, joggers and walkers all enjoying the paved trail on the wide open space between the split of trees. I pick up so much speed on the hill ride down that I fly by everyone, going against all warning signs to “go slow” as the path winds and curves.
I pass by several families making use of the parkland barbecues, the smell of sizzling meat filling my nostrils and suddenly making me feel like those three cookies and beer were not enough. I pull over to a nearby park bench and watch a seagull stare down the family barbecue with far less discretion than myself.
I’m at a fork in the bike paths now – I can either continue on east towards an area I’m wholly familiar with, due to it being near my apartment and a favourite place of mine to go jogging; I can go back the way I came and face that hill on the opposing end; or I can try one of these new pathways. I choose the latter, which is also at quite an incline, but after a while I come across a construction site and, not knowing if I’d be forced to turn around or detour into unknown directions, with more and more ominous clouds rolling in, I turn around and decide to go back up the way I came.
I gain speed again going down the hill and on the turn down, almost crash into a group of walkers who luckily got out of the way in time! Even though it’s three years old, my bike and I don’t really know each other well yet, and only more time spent together will help me learn its ability to handle sharp turns. Heading back west I see that the trail continues on past the bridge where I began my trek into the ravine, but I dismount my bike and head back up that hill, vowing to save where that path leads and ends for another day of exploration.
The small of my back is wet with sweat underneath my rucksack and I’ve almost ran out of water, but I finish as strongly as I began. I leave the ravine and the smell of chlorophyll, barbecue, and the North Saskatchewan river in favour of the suburbia that lurks just outside the world of pavement that comprise the downtown core. The storm manages to hold off, and even as I write this has not yet struck, which leads me to wonder more about where that trail would have led, but today is not a day for regret or wishful thinking. I arrive back home and finish my six hours of exploring just as my stomach’s rumbling starts to become unbearable, and I get out the butter chicken and naan I bought earlier for a hearty dinner after an exciting day.
Even though I’ve lived in this city for the past 24 years, I saw parts of my hometown I had never seen before. Though my lust for travel is unquenchable, it’s not impossible to experience a new adventure without straying too far from home, and I can only hope for a day just like this to happen again someday soon.