Why I walked the Seawall

I got into the habit, over a couple of months spent in Vancouver not too long ago, of stopping by a curious outcrop called Siwash Rock. It was a strange and wondrous thing, standing tall in the waters of English Bay next to the 1000-acre oasis of calm that is Stanley Park, with seagulls and herons using its fir-lined peak as a resting spot. If one looked at it just right, its side bore the distinct visage of a man silhouetted against the sky.

Siwash Rock stands tall centuries after it was thrust up from the Earth

According to legend (and a plaque helpfully embedded alongside), the Squamish people of south-western British Columbia referred to it as Skalsh Rock, after a young chief bearing that name. The night before his first child’s birth, he and his wife swam in the waters nearby to purify themselves, as was the custom. He continued to swim after his wife left, waiting until his child was born to ensure a safe delivery, until he was interrupted by a canoe carrying a few gods. They asked him to move out of the way but he refused, for which he was transformed into stone as a symbol of fatherhood. It was meant to be his reward, making me wonder what a punishment could be.

The rock, approximately 60 feet tall, was formed by volcanic activity over 32 million years ago. It was hard not to stop and stare at it — the ocean swirling noisily at its base while clouds formed and reformed overhead — on what became my daily walk across the world’s longest uninterrupted waterfront path: the Seawall.

The Lions Gate Bridge is just one of the landmarks visible from the Seawall

At first, it was unusual to think of this paved pathway as a tourist attraction. It attracted hordes of visitors right through the year, but more in summer than winter when I only saw local health fanatics and marathon runners. Some people followed it for a kilometre or two, others cycled the entire length, while still others cut in and out of the park. Whatever their reason, I slowly began to see things from their point of view. Like them, I grew extremely fond of the Seawall, possibly because the views it offered kept changing dramatically with every bend. Some parts showcased just endless stretches of water. There were some sheltered coves in which harbour seals playfully emerged to stare brazenly, public beaches perfect for picnics, a magnificent suspension bridge called Lions Gate connecting the City of Vancouver to the District of North Vancouver and, on either side of the park, a skyline that could give a lot of cities an inferiority complex.

There was something undoubtedly visionary about the Canadians who dreamed the wall into existence in the 1900s. “I doubt if there exists anywhere on this continent such possibilities of a combined park and marine walk as we have in Stanley Park,” is what a superintendent named W. S. Rawlings is reported to have said, while proposing the idea to the government. One of the reasons cited was a wall could prevent the erosion of portions of the park, but there was also a farsighted view of what it could eventually mean to future generations. A stonemason called Jimmy Cunningham was so taken with the idea that he made the project his life’s work, from 1917 until his death in 1963, supervising workers and cementing stones weighing 45-kilograms each. Apparently, as a gesture of gratitude, his ashes were placed in an unmarked portion of the structure before it opened to the public eight years after his passing.

Migratory birds call the Seawall home for a few months of the year

Like all overwhelming feats of engineering, there were faceless multitudes on whose backs these stones were carried. Some were prisoners deployed in work gangs, others sailors forced into labour as punishment for minor crimes, and there was also an influx of unemployed people from across the country on account of the Great Depression. Few of them must have lived to see the project, which continued well into 1980, but I thought about their mighty attempt to keep the heaving sea in check during my daily treks. I would manoeuvre through dedicated joggers, strolling senior citizens and selfie-obsessed tourists. Until 1976, I would have had rogue cyclists to deal with too, until a designated bicycle lane was marked counter clockwise around the park.

I began to try and imagine what a similar Seawall could do to other cities blessed with large water bodies. I thought of Bombay with a stretch running halfway across it, transforming not just the lives of people in the vicinity but yielding business and other opportunities for anyone enterprising enough to harness those free views of the Arabian Sea. Bureaucracy and endemic corruption would stifle the idea before birth, of course, but I began to appreciate Vancouver a lot more because of those daily 12-kilometre marches I had no idea my body was capable of finishing.

The Vancouver skyline at one end of the Seawall

At times, I took detours to local attractions like Granville Island (which is actually a peninsula), an Inukshuk statue made from stones strategically placed upon other stones as historic markers, or the nine totem poles of Stanley Park welcoming visitors to the traditional lands of the Coast Salish people. My body changed as the walks became easier and I began to understand why so many people had long advocated the benefits of these endless, seemingly pointless rambles. Beethoven famously deployed his habit towards the creation of his Pastoral Symphony, and Darwin installed a gravel path around his house, along which he walked in circles daily. Then there was Dickens, who took it to extremes with 30-mile walks.

According to environmental psychology research, walking in daylight helps align our circadian rhythms with the places we lived in. I was pretty sure none of the walkers I encountered on the Seawall cared about this. For them, and for me, it became a freeing ritual, putting one foot before the other in a purposeless manner, and enjoying it. Months after I last did it, sudden glimpses of sea and sky would flash before my eyes when I least expected them to, making me blink with pleasure.

— First published in GQ, India, May 2018

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