We’re well into COVID-19 lockdown in much of the world now , and so far I’ve resisted writing too much about it as I’ve wanted to remain positive during a time that has been negative for many. But now, almost two months into lockdown, I’ve had time to think about some of the positives that have come out of being at home. For me, one of the clearest benefits has been a new relationship with space. No, not the space of astronauts, shuttle launches, and little green men. I mean the wide-open space here on earth, the distance and space I’ve taken for granted. As the space around us has shrunk during this period of lockdown, I’ve gained an increased appreciation for the space closest to me.
My idea of space
I have a special relationship with space. Maybe everyone does, in their own way. But for me, it’s been a fascination from a very young age. As a kid, I loved maps. On them, the wider world was laid out before me. I could look at a map and see all of the adventures that were waiting to be had. Whether that was a huge expanse of space between me and some far off exotic land, or a smaller space that extended only to a nearby lake or trail, I was hooked.
At some point during my formative years, I started to gravitate toward an interest in larger and larger amounts of space. I wanted to spend as much time as I could crossing that space and seeing what was on the other side. Writing came easily to me in school, so I decided that being a journalist would be the best way for me to make a career out of travelling through and seeing as much space as possible. And I would be able to describe what was on the other side of all that space.
Space as a commodity
But by the time I finished University, my enthusiasm for journalism had waned. I still loved travelling and writing, but that career path just wasn’t for me. So I took a job that allowed me to study space in a whole different way: surveying. And although surveying didn’t involve much writing, it did involve maps. Big time. Essentially, my job involved either making maps or marking out for people in the real world, what was on a map.
Through surveying, my relationship with space gained another dimension. It went from being a pathway to adventure to something that could be commodified, bought, sold, fought over and even misinterpreted. Surveying meant breaking space down into tiny units and assigning coordinates to them. For better or for worse, once space is represented in this way, it can have a monetary value placed on it. But not before. Here space becomes less of an idea, something that separates someone from an adventure for example, and it changes into something more concrete.
Nothing hammers home the idea of space as a concrete entity like spending many years as a surveyor. I’ve witnessed innumerable people fighting over strips of space as small as a few inches wide. Unfortunately in these cases, I was usually the one who would have to let the parties know who was right and who was wrong. And sometimes being wrong would mean a large financial penalty for one side.
Although this was my job, I still thought of space as an idea. A route to adventure. So between bouts of watching people argue over space that they owned, or thought they owned, I tried to cover as much space as I could to see what was on the other side.
Taking space for granted
Having the ability to fly in relative luxury, from anywhere on Earth to anywhere else on Earth is something most of us take for granted. This isn’t a new idea, but reflecting on it is certainly new to me. Up to and until COVID-19 forced us to stay close to home, I spent much of my free time and money trying to get as far away as possible.
For example, I’ve travelled to the continent of Africa three times and visited almost twice that many countries there. But I’ve only travelled to eastern Canada once. And I’m Canadian. That trip east was only a long weekend in Toronto.. And even that was only because my wife Heather was already there for work, making it a convenient weekend trip.
When it comes to mountain biking (I had to get to it sooner or later), I’ve also only tolerated being close to home while planning my escape. There are great trails near where I live. But I’ve historically only seen them as places to put in riding-time when I had to be at work, or at home for some other commitment.
Most riding seasons Heather and I would pack up our trailer and spend almost every weekend riding away from our home trails. Nearby trails were good enough for after-work rides, but that’s about it. And when we were able to get away riding for longer than a weekend, we would cross even more space and ride even further from home.
Home isn’t half bad
None of this was because home lacks things worth staying for. Objectively, I live in a place well worth exploring. People travel from all over the world to visit nearby Banff National Park and the Rocky Mountains. And although the mountain bike trails close to Calgary are overshadowed by those in the neighbouring riding Mecca known as British Columbia, they are top-notch by most standards.
So with that as a backdrop, being forced to stay close to home as the result of COVID-19 lockdowns came as a bit of a shock. But it hasn’t been all bad. As the world around me has closed in, it’s forced me to re-evaluate my relationship with space.
Over the course of the two months we’ve been in lockdown, the world has gotten much smaller for most people. It began quite quickly with many starting to work from home, and borders closing to international visitors. Then the Canada/US border closed to non-essential traffic. Then we were asked not to travel to other cities and towns. Restaurants and most retail stores closed. And finally, parks outside the city closed as well.
Like many others, I had big plans for the upcoming summer. Most of it involved mountain biking or mountain bike racing in other towns and even other countries.
I hadn’t planned much close to home. As has been the case for as long as I can remember, my plans all involved covering a lot of space to get where I was going. And I would ignore most of what was right on my doorstep. Now all of that is on hold. The one big race I had planned to compete in, Singletrack 6, was moved from June to September. All the travel I had planned was canceled out of uncertainty.
My world started to shrink
All of a sudden my range of travel was reduced to walking distance from my house with the odd trip to buy groceries once a week. It was tough to take at first. But as I explored things closer to home, I realized that I had actually been missing out on a lot.
Walking our dog Roxy is one of the few activities that gets me out of the house for any length of time. As a result, I’ve begun to spend more time at an off-leash dog park. It is the fenced-off kind and if you haven’t spent much time at one, here’s how they work: most of the owners stand in a group chatting near the middle of the park while the dogs play with each other. These days people are standing a little further apart in an attempt to physically distance, but that hasn’t stopped me from meeting a lot of interesting people. I meet people from all walks of life and different professions. I even met a nurse who had just finished a bout of quarantine after being exposed to someone with COVID-19 at work.
Exploring the smaller spaces
After a few trips to that park, it started to become clear that apart from Heather, these are really the only people I am talking to in person. Sure, I do my fair share of Zoom calls, virtual meetings, virtual drinks and online games. But those aren’t the same as talking with someone face to face.
Beyond the dog park, I have found a lot of other things to appreciate close to home. I live near a beautiful river, surrounded by great city parks. There are mountain bike trails throughout these parks that I’ve only begun to scratch the surface of exploring. Together they add up to dozens of kilometres of trails that are virtually right in my own backyard.
Walking through the streets in my neighborhood, I’ve even started to appreciate all the different styles and types of houses that seem to be the hallmark of the 1970s.
Even closer to home, I’ve spent more time exploring my own yard. Paying more attention to the wildlife that often stops by: rabbits, squirrels, and birds, to name only a few. And for better or worse, I’ve even begun to notice more of the things that need fixing around the house. No doubt they ended up that way because of my misguided notion that more space always led to something better, and all of this was just in my own boring backyard.
Things may never be the same
Being home has changed my relationship with space yet again. Maybe change isn’t the right word. Evolved might be a better way to describe it. Despite the years of surveying, I still prefer to see space as an idea rather than a commodity. But I’m less convinced that the larger the space covered, the more interesting the adventure on the other side.
I’m sure I’ll never lose the urge to cross large amounts of space just to see what’s on the other side, but I just might give more thought to the space near me. I might have to, we all might have to. Nobody knows what the world will look like after this pandemic has passed, but one thing we know is that it will never be the same.
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