A Dérive to the Airport: Part Two

August 20, 2014  •  Leave a Comment


My parcel will shortly be boarding the jet parked in the backyard of the little office I am now leaving. After a failed attempt to shortcut through a jumble of warehouses and airport outlier buildings ends with a chain link fence, I retrace my steps, rounding the Purolator box with its trademark blue trim, past the snaking chain link fence that seems to be following me and onto Airport Road or, more properly the the dirt and grass beside the road. I am surprised by the bright colourful mural, completely covering the wall of some small one-storey utility building. It now has a curious archival value in that it depicts Winnipeg’s three major sports teams, one of which has been replaced by the resurrected Winnipeg Jets. I have driven this road many times when exiting the airport but never noticed this splash of colour set in a field of grey concrete walls and parking lots. I mean, it is parallel to the road and would require some dangerous neck-craning by drivers to catch a glimpse of it, let alone notice the dated reference to the Manitoba Moose hockey team. I should feel privileged being the lone pedestrian that has plied this road in recent history, able to stop and take in this historic document.



I decide to detour across a parking lot to the nearby bus terminal. It had moved here sometime ago from its more logical downtown location. My last long distance bus trip was many years ago, but I recall the two best features of bus travel were its low cost and that the terminal was always centrally located in the downtown of whatever city I was arriving at. That is where I wanted to go. Why would I want to arrive in the middle of nowhere, at an airport? I walk through the depot’s empty, dull waiting room and head to one of the few remaining buildings dating back to the recently demolished airport. An elevator up to the second floor leads to a large glass window with a splendid view of the dirt patch where the airport once stood. Regarded by many as an early modern architectural masterwork, it has suffered the fate of structures too closely tied to rapidly changing technologies and expectations for a brighter, shinier future. Back down to street level, there is actually a sidewalk passing in front of the Four Points Hotel, a remnant of the departure and arrival ramps for the old airport. How long will this now-purposeless anachronism last? 


A quick detour through the lobby of another hotel leads to the arrival ramp of our splashy new airport.  It is a nasty space for pedestrians, a windy tunnel for cars, taxis, limousines and buses roofed by the grey concrete departure ramp above. Stepping through the rotating glass airlock reveals a bright and spacious interior, garnished with the intriguing treats of public art that dot all airports. It is refreshing to visit the airport as a guest with absolutely no reason or purpose for being there. I can relax. I am not some poor cow being prodded through gates with squawking wands on my way to the cattle car. For the first time, I notice the framed view through the terminal’s glass wall of downtown Winnipeg, my small rough-hewn city rising in the distance beyond the flat unnatural prairie of airport warehouses and hotels.



Looking out over the city, I am reminded how unusual my little airport dérive is. There are not many cities with an international airport plunked within a few kilometers of the city centre. Consider airports in Edmonton or Halifax where any city-to-airport walk would take six to seven hours. No, ours is quite walkable. Any flight could start this way, armed only with an extra forty-five minutes, a carry-on backpack and a taste for the unconventional.


Leaving the airport, I am back on that surly arrival ramp, looking for my way home. My plan is to follow the road leading me downtown, towards the small cluster of office towers I can see on the distant horizon. But, immediately in front of me lies a brutalist cavern of roads and ramps. There is a concrete ‘sidewalk’ of sorts but I suspect it is a decorative folly with no specific value as a continuous pedestrian path and likely to end in a few minutes. And so it is. I am soon on grass, aiming myself to little offshoot roads that seem to be going in my direction and through an airport taxi staging area with its curious picnic area set in an industrial forest of oversized billboards, light posts and airport directional signs. A place to rest for the wayward walker.



Pressing on, I continue down Sargeant Avenue, downtown towers still in the distance. Sidewalks gradually reappear as I pass airport hotels and strip malls mixed in with industrial warehouses. But this is still the land of cars and trucks and any sense of human scale is unintentionally comical for the rare walker who dares lift his or her gaze from the treacherous broken concrete path and takes the time to examine the craziness of the surroundings: massive concrete block walls, half a block long, ‘animated’ with super graphic paint jobs or super-scaled bas-relief panels or midget trees evenly spaced as if to emphasize the dreariness of the massive walls looming behind them. And then there are are the nutty look-at-me attempts to attract the attention of distractable drivers. Tall, air-inflated plastic wieners sporting clown faces and all-lurid colours flap wildly in the wind whistling between the concrete boxes, desperately pleading for someone, anyone, to suddenly swerve into their parking lot and buy a mattress or two.



I must admit, this is a refreshingly unique place to walk, populated as it is with unnatural wonders that elicit satirical delight. 


At this point, I must reconsider the dérive portion of my walk. Although I still have a fair distance to walk, I am in familiar territory and on paths I have trodden before. Such is the problem with smaller cities like Winnipeg. If you are any sort of walker, it does not take long to have plied all of the  'pleasant' walking routes near your home.  However, a walk to the airport is such an unexpected journey, so thoroughly unplanned for by urban planners, that it would seem to qualify as an authentic dérive.


I am now at the edge between industrial and residential Winnipeg, an edge clearly defined by railway tracks and the industrialized Omand's Creek. I am also at the foot of Westview Park. That's the official name. All Winnipeggers call it Garbage Hill because this singular outcrop on the flat urban landscape was once a garbage dump. I like coming here. The views are tremendous of course, the industrial din is muffled, a contrasting panorama of Winnipeg is spread before you. To the east is all of downtown set in a comfortable carpet of green, the inner-city residential areas of Winnipeg. Looking west, I can see the airport tower in the distance and, between here and there, the grey clutter of heavy industry, big box stores and warehouses I have just ambled through. Garbage Hill itself is tightly nestled between railway tracks and Omand's Creek. These parallel steel and water paths run south to the Assiniboine River and my home. 




I head down the hill and follow the gravel path that winds its way alongside the creek. This waterway is tragically beautiful, redirected as it is into a dead straight line and surrounded by light industry, Walmart, Home Depot, hotels, car dealerships, strip malls, a brew pub, a pancake house, what have you. It occupies some netherworld between nature and city where red-winged blackbirds congregate and sing dulcet trills, only to be abruptly interrupted by a squawky voice over the speaker from an adjacent garage, announcing such-and-such car is ready for pickup.

I am back home now, back in my precious Wolseley neighbourhood, where Omand's Creek magically becomes park-like and sylvan just before pouring the tears of its earlier travels into the Assiniboine River. 






A Dérive to the Airport: Breadcrumbs will appear in the next post on WalkClickMake.



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