The Chinese philosopher and founder of Taoism, Lao Tzu, famously wrote that “a journey of a thousand miles begins with a first step.” And so it was – literally – with Jean Béliveau, a man who, at 44, was suffering a mid-life crisis. His neon sign business had failed, he was recovering from a back injury, and suffering from depression. As part of his recovery from the back injury he began to walk – first, four blocks, and then a little more, increasing gradually until he was able to run good distances.
Then one day Jean had the idea of running around the world. He tested the idea with friends, designed the push cart that would carry his belongings, and let the idea stew in his mind for eight months before he told his wife, Luce Archambault. It was three weeks before his 45th birthday on August 18, 2000, the day his walk would begin. He had $4,000, very poor English, and a great desire to run away from home. He would not return to Montreal until his walk was complete. (For more on this part of Jean’s story see our article).
Soon after Jean set off, he abandoned his idea of running and decided to walk. Luce, who supported him throughout this long journey, suggested that the walk should promote a cause and suggested it should be for Peace for Children, corresponding with the UN’s international Decade for a Culture of Peace and Non-violence for Children from 2001-2010.
In the first 2 ½ years he walked south to Argentina and Brazil, passing through Chile on the way. There, he visited prisons and spoke with inmates. He told them that he, too, was an outsider, and didn’t fit conventional expectations. He had dropped out of the first year of high school and never returned. Yet he was capable of realizing big dreams. They, too, could realize big dreams, he told them.
Other cultures have wandering traditions. Aboriginal Australians have the tradition of ‘going walkabout;’ the Maasai of Kenya are known to run
great distances, running themselves into a trance. And in India and Nepal there are Hindu religious men called sadhus who renounce all material possessions and worldly pleasures and often traverse the country on foot, relying on public generosity for survival – Jean met one naked sadhu in India who claimed he had walked around the country for 30 years, six days a week, 30 kms a day. Jean did not give up the pleasures of life, though his material needs were minimal, but there are some similarities with sadhus in the spirit of his journey.
You can’t circle the world by racing
Like the sadhu, Jean paced his journey. You can’t traverse the world by racing. He walks five kms an hour without his buggy and four kms an hour with it for, ideally, 20 to 25 kms a day.
Jean’s health has been remarkably good throughout his journey. Interestingly, he almost always drank local water, even when he travelled through countries where the water was suspect. Yet he was only sick with serious diarrhea, requiring antibiotics, three times. He felt that drinking local water helped his body adjust to local conditions. In Algeria, he required an operation – conducted for free by an Algerian doctor – and he has some small problems with his hands and feet for which he is taking medication.
Throughout his walk, Jean spread a message of peace, hope and the dignity of all people and peoples – including his own nation, Quebec. For me, his walk also exemplifies a great faith in human goodness and generosity. Luce sent him $3,000 to $4,000 a year, he said, but 80 percent of the resources, in money or in kind, came from the thousands of people he met along the way.
Some donors and hosts were wealthy. Air New Zealand flew Jean from Australia to New Zealand and then from New Zealand to Vancouver, without asking for publicity in return. A Canadian, a Brazilian and South African Airlines shared the cost of his ticket from Brazil to South Africa. He also received camping gear and sports equipment from outfitters – which must have helped with the 49 pairs of shoes he has worn out so far. But most people who gave Jean a place to stay, a meal and directed him along the way were ordinary and often very poor.
At a time when it is easy to be cynical about the world, Jean’s journey represents more than his remarkable feat. To me, it represents a thread of hospitality and good will around the world as thousands of people in 65 countries helped a Canadian on his way. In a way, it binds us, his hosts and helpers.
I, too, have experienced that hospitality many times last year while working for the Carter Center in Nepal. Our team would often hike into remote villages without notice and we were always welcomed, fed, and provided with a place to stay. I think that is why I was ready to help Jean.
On March 19, 3,866 days (ten years and seven months) after his journey began, Jean pushed his cart into Revelstoke. Current editor, David Rooney, had told me that he was coming into town and that he would need a place to stay. My own apartment is too small to comfortably accommodate guests but I forwarded an article David had written about Jean to friends and family around town. Three people, including my sister, Krista Stovel, offered hospitality and in the end Jean stayed at Krista’s home.
Jean was an excellent and easy guest who pitched in with the dishes and shared his stories with anyone he met, often pulling out his scrapbook of articles and clippings that recorded his journey. Krista bought him groceries for the journey and took him out to meet friends and listen to jazz.
On Sunday, Mayor Dave Raven took the time to meet Jean at his home. And all the while, Krista, several friends and I phoned around to find places for him to stay as he headed towards Roger’s Pass.
The task was not as easy as we first thought. There was no offer of accommodation at Roger’s Pass and the terrain and elements were too unpredictable for winter camping – something he hadn’t yet done in the Canadian mountains. Jean would have to be shuttled for a few days back and forth between Revelstoke and the various legs of his journey.
We soon realized that accommodation was the least of our worries. The snow sheds both west and east of Roger’s Pass were too dark and narrow for a walker. There is no sidewalk inside and vehicles enter the dark throughways with little time for their eyes to adjust. Even if we could shuttle Jean through the snow sheds, Parks Canada officials warned us that the avalanche hazard was considerable along most of the highway in Glacier National Park. The army was shooting down avalanches and roads were being cleared of snow and debris all along the highway. Having Jean walk through Glacier National Park was not only dangerous for him; it would delay avalanche clearance activities that were critical for public safety. Safe passage for Jean through Roger’s Pass required some real logistical planning.
Parks Canada staff went all out to assist Jean and to help him understand the dangers of this leg of his journey. Parks’ external liaison, Jacolyn Daniluck, met with us to discuss Jean’s journey and she and Parks managers met, along with Parks avalanche specialists, to discuss which parts of the route Jean could safely walk. They provided Jean with a thick and detailed package with an extensive, multi-page chart describing each avalanche path along the way and more than ten pages of coloured maps showing his route from Revelstoke to Golden. The maps indicated which parts of the road were in avalanche zones and which sections he could safely walk. Parks superintendent Karen Tierney also enclosed a personal letter to Jean, stating that, after careful consideration, they advised him not to walk through avalanche terrain. Jacolyn even took the trouble to drop off the package at Krista’s place after work.
“A hole in my walk is like a hole in my heart”
We also visited the Ministry of Transportation and spoke with avalanche expert Bruce Allen about the leg of the highway in provincial jurisdiction. Allen advised us to walk in the morning when rocks and snow are less likely to fall and he loaned me a safety vest as, at the time, I hoped to be able to walk with Jean and experience a small bit of what his journey was like. I was not able to do so as I was more useful as a driver. One Revelstoke resident, Federico Osario, however, did walk with Jean the first afternoon that he arrived.
For Jean, not being able to walk through Rogers Pass was very hard. “A hole in my walk is like a hole in my heart,” he said dramatically, but I have
no doubt that he felt it. He had been through so much, found ways through some very tough terrain, and had police or army escorts in nine countries, including Tunisia, Georgia, Egypt and South Africa. He had very few gaps in his journey: he did not receive a visa for Libya and had to pass over it; he had to drive through part of Mindanau, in the Philippines, where there was real threat of abduction by rebels; and police in the US prevented him from crossing a two-kilometer bridge. Now, to be unable to cross his own country without a gap was very frustrating.
In the end, Jean walked to just before the first snow shed after Canyon Hot Springs where the high avalanche hazard began. I picked him up and we drove to the east gate of Glacier National Park. I left Jean there and took his buggy in my parents’ car to Golden where I met with Brenda MacLeod, the daughter of people Jean had stayed with in Kamloops; United Church Reverend Judith Hardcastle who offered Jean her home; and Cree elder and fiddler George Stynadka – referred to us by Revelstoke’s Jannica Hoskins, who had also offered her home in Revelstoke.
The baton was passed. Jean would be in good hands. And I now know some wonderful people in Golden who I hope to meet again.
So what have I learned in the three days with Jean? I learned that an incredible dream can be realized against great odds through sheer determination, courage and fortitude – and ‘single-mindedness.’ I learned about pacing. And I learned about community, not only through the many people in Revelstoke who reached out to help Jean, but also community with those all along the invisible thread Jean strung around the world, the community of good people who reached out to help a stranger.
“Good people?” Jean said, when he read these words that I wrote in his little book of hosts. “I have sometimes been hosted by killers and corrupt people.” Well Jean, somehow we are all in this boat together in this messy world of ours. And even those people found it in their heart to help you. And I thank them.
Post Script: After I left him in Golden, Jean returned to Glacier National Park and walked the route. He wrote in an e-mail,
“I could not go further with such a hole in my way home. So I walked all the kilometers of this gap with the support of people from Golden.
“The concept of this walk does not follow common paths. As you may imagine, it is not the only risky zone that I have passed in these nearly 11 years walking around the world. These hard decisions are the sum of many situations that made the wwwalk.
“Now I continue my mission with another step successfully done and with my mind in peace.”
Laura Stovel is a regular contributor to The Revelstoke Current