Two women walked 700km in their ancestors' footsteps — and they want to talk about it

Erin Brubacher and Christine Brubaker walked roughly 700km leading up to a series of events called The Unpacking, which they are putting on as part of the Summerworks Performance Festival in Toronto. But the trek itself is also a performance of sorts, which they've dubbed 7th Cousins.

When they call me from Ulysses, Pa., Erin Brubacher and Christine Brubaker are at the mid-point of a walk covering roughly 700 kilometres. Like the many people throughout history who have trekked long distances, often for spiritual reasons, these two women are on a sort of quest. But theirs isn't a pilgrimage, per se. It's more of an investigation.

The walk leads up to a series of events called The Unpacking, which they are putting on as part of the SummerWorks Performance Festival in Toronto. But the trek itself is also a performance of sorts, which they've dubbed 7th Cousins. The two women's familial relationship is a mythology they created as part of their friendship  – they're both artists who met in Toronto – that taps into their shared Mennonite history. They believe that in 1754, their ancestors (who were first cousins, according to their genealogical research) took a boat together from Europe to Pennsylvania as part of a mass migration to escape religious persecution. They ended up in Pennsylvania, but at the beginning of the nineteenth century, both Brubacher and Brubaker's families moved again, this time to Ontario. It was a well-worn route among Mennonites, who traveled along it with their horses and wagons. It's also the basis for a mythography, or building and collecting of myths, that both women will now examine while they build one of their own.

We've always had this skepticism about what we've read [about our family's history]. Of course, you can't know.- Christine Brubaker

But why make the trip now, on foot? Anyone who has undertaken a multi-day trek can tell you that that it's hard on the system. You'll likely be lonely, isolated, blistered, sunburned, hungry, and bitten by bugs of all kinds.

But if Brubaker and Brubacher want to trace the route their forebears traveled, they need to trace the trail their ancestors followed, even though it's now varied topography, from road to grass to six-lane highway. Congenial members of the Mennonite community have taken them in at night, telling the two women stories and giving them a glimpse of a life they don't know very well (neither of the two live strictly in the Mennonite way). So both women are learning about their families, about immigration and about the labour required to transplant your life from one country to another.

Erin and Christine say that the way one of them remembers the day before can be pretty distant from the way the other remembers it. This is what walking does – it changes perception, it slows things down or speeds them up. A friend wrote an email to them saying, "Time must have a different texture now." Walking can become meditation, meditation can become boredom, boredom can become restlessness. And that's just in the span of an hour.

They say that the journey has made them think about memory, about accounts of travel, stories of their family. How much can we trust our memory? "I think that's why we embraced the idea of mythography," Christine asserts, "parts of the story written down that may or may not be true. Then we bring our truth."

"Memory is a really slippery tricky thing. So we're making our own mythography of the here and now together. We're also on the teeter totter of trying to be as truthful as we can about it. We've always had this skepticism about what we've read [about our family's history]. Of course, you can't know."

Today, back in Toronto, they'll begin The Unpacking, a retelling of their journey. With an audience, they'll remap the whole journey, figure out where exactly they walked. They'll take out photos, look at notes, try to remember it all. And that recounting may be quite flawed – some stories will actually be myths. Their experience itself won't be repeated, but with each conversation and slideshow, it may slowly turn into an epic story. Perhaps, as the blisters heal, it'll become something else altogether.

The Unpacking, part of the SummerWorks Performance Festival, happens at a secret location in Toronto. To Aug. 11. Free.

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