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Monique Keiran: Obscure pathways lead to whole new world

A little-known network of shortcuts and passageways knits many of the region’s urban areas together. These connecting pathways — they’re too short to be called trails — pass unobtrusively among municipalities’ houses and yards.

A little-known network of shortcuts and passageways knits many of the region’s urban areas together.

These connecting pathways — they’re too short to be called trails — pass unobtrusively among municipalities’ houses and yards. They stitch residential streets to other residential streets, quiet parks to formal trail systems, seemingly dead-ends to pedestrian-only exits, and neighbourhoods to crescent beaches or rocky shorelines. They wind through neighbourhoods, linking a person’s travels into lines and loops through local urban geography.

Each of the region’s municipalities treats these access points and rights of way differently. Some, like Saanich, glory in their abundance and chart their locations like chicken scratchings on trail maps. You can visit the parks and recreation section of the Saanich website and follow the link to the Parks and Trails Guide.

Some municipalities, like Victoria and Esquimalt, make the most of the few no-vehicle passageways that century-old urban planning and decades-old development have left them, and have worked them into formal walking and even lazy-day cycling loops.

Some municipalities keep quiet about them, leaving local explorers to scrutinize municipal maps for faint lines and other signs that might indicate the little-used laneways amid the bolder cartographic connections.

Whether they’re published or not, most of these passages seem to remain neighbourhood secrets, known primarily to those who live alongside them.

In fact, these rights of passage could be seen as rites of passage. Only when you can confidently navigate the byways, passageways, greenways and public rights of ways through a neighbourhood — only when you have gotten yourself turned around, lost and reliably found again, and etched the entrances and exits indelibly in your memory so that you can retrace the route and follow it forwards and backwards, inside and out, with one arm behind your back and your tongue held that certain way — can you claim to know an area’s layout really well.

And to do that, time is required. You need to take the time to explore the sidestreets and backroads, and follow up on whatever they present and wherever they lead. You must proceed without a pressing need to be anywhere any time soon. The lingering, long-lit evenings of this time of year provide a welcome setting to getting off the beaten track of your after-dinner trek, to take unexpected detours and roundabouts that will lead you who-knows-where.

The maps that mark the pathways provide only indications. The maps tell you that about this far down such-and-such a street between these two cross streets, a pathway leads this way or that way to connect you from here to there.

No, the easiest way to find the passageways when you’re on the ground looking for them is to travel on foot. The scenery passes by too quickly when you’re driving or even cycling, and the entrances to the rights-of-way are typically narrow, usually unsigned, and easily mistaken for private walkways leading around the sides of houses into backyards.

You need to be alert. 

The location-finder phone apps that show you as a blue dot on the maps tell you if you’re getting close or have travelled right by. However, technology also leaches much of the sense of adventure and discovery from the experience.

And what will you find? Some of the connecting pathways involve steep inclines or flights of stairs. Some passageways are green-lit tunnels lined with towering hedges. Some are uncompromisingly enclosed by privacy fences. Others are edged by flowers that escaped from neighbouring gardens. Some are used so seldom that moss softens your footsteps.

And when you’ve found these passageways and created routes of your own to loop you through neighbourhoods, you can introduce other people to the network. You can use them to confound friends and visitors on walks, who will swear they’d never be able to find the route again on their own. You can impress neighbours, who might not even have known these shortcuts existed practically in their backyards.

And you will be one of the few who knows how to get from here to there without setting foot along such-and-such a busy road, and who can chart your own course through a neighbourhood, using the map you’ve created in your mind.

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