Passages and Portages
I have been using the image of a pathway for my entryway into this column. As a trail walker, I learned to become part of my environment and be attentive to the world around me. Trail walking helped me develop an interest in the journey rather than the destination. When we are talking about creating a sustainable economy and building community the “destination” really isn’t a place at all. It is a set of moving goals that once met, lead to new goals.
So, as I have found my business without a major pathway these past two months, I get to rethink the power of paths. Customers who considered me a destination were quite put off with the disruption to the path. Detours, lack of signage, loss of parking at the end of the journey, and a bit of construction-related noise and commotion created a less desirable experience to reach my destination. For many people, there were easier pathways to other destinations. Even for those who made the effort to get here, I could tell the journey was a difficult one and my destination needed to provide something extra to account for the challenges.
For those who have regularly continued to make the journey, the conversation is much different. We recognize a process that is taking place. We see a journey happening for the street itself. The crews that have been working are on a several month journey from start to finish, that has included demolishing and removing the old street, reshaping and repairing roadway, installing new utilities and sewer, rebuilding curbs and sidewalks, and grading and layering the surface of the street many times. Each week brings a new perspective on this journey from pot-hole ridden street to beautiful new Nicollet Avenue. We notice the changes, talk about the time-line, and imagine the destination together.
I am noticing the power of the avenue as a pathway. During construction there were many evenings, after the construction workers left, that the street became a biking and walking path. Groups of people moved up and down the block to visit a restaurant or get to a store. Children held impromptu ball games or tested out new scooters on the quiet, smooth space. Dog walkers had a spot for a longer leash. The occasional stray car on the street seemed oddly out of place. An improvement to our overly-dependent car society?
After the July 1999 blowdown storm in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area, downed trees blocked many portages between lakes. It became nearly impossible to make the journey from lake to
lake, and while new paths were made to get around trees, it became obvious that the portages were there because they were the best (and maybe only) path between the two lakes. So little by little, portages were cleared, and pathways restored. Near the lake I frequent each summer, damage to one trail was so severe that a new path developed. It followed what seemed to be the natural path of animals in the area. While a bit longer, it turned out to be a fine trail in the end and now I can’t remember the old journey from Bearskin to Moss.
We are always on the path. Passages and portages change around us, sometimes while we are on them. Sometimes I start a path and realize that I am walking another path that I had not chosen. Now, as I look back, I realize that somehow all of my paths have been connected, even ones where I was sure I was way off the trail. Experiences along my teaching path intersected with a path through experimental crop fields, a museum, a publishing house, a church summer program, and home renovation projects. A path I left many years ago turned up again to put me back into a restaurant and working with food. However, now the journey includes all the other paths that I have been walking, they merge much like the widened sidewalk that Nicollet Avenue became during June. There is space for so much more and I hope that our experience of having a street be not a street can remind us to create pathways and passages through our city that do allow for many modes of transit to exist.
And while I have yet to see someone portage a canoe down Nicollet Avenue, I don’t want to rule it out.