ChrisLee

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#17: sleep

 

Today is our fiftieth day on the road. So far we’ve paid for accommodation on 13 sleeps.

We gravitated toward campsites earlier on in the trip, attracted by showers, charging, laundry, safety from bears, and the opportunity to lay in without being hassled.

Recently though we’ve mainly wild camped, thanks to a combination of lowered standards and increased confidence in finding somewhere to sleep. (These wild camps have been supplemented by various wonderful and generous beds too, to be detailed in another post!)

Last night was the biggest indicator that our standards have shifted. We slept in a park, side by side under a tarpaulin amongst some trees no more than five feet from the path. Our plan to go a few miles out of town and camp in the bush was waylaid by a combination of a late start, a few pints, and a rainstorm that erupted as we were eating dinner in the park.

It was 10pm when we’d set up and readied ourselves for sleep, and a family walked past. “Oh there’s some bikes!” they said, then “oh, there’s some people…”. Our attempt to hide by turning our head-torches off and sitting still obviously didn’t work.

Their tone was in between disappointment and mild concern, and they walked away at a quicker pace than they’d arrived. We wondered whether bikes made our presence in the park more or less palatable to passing civilians and rangers.

I slept well considering the visibility of the pitch and general sogginess of the surroundings. My mind spent a while automatically assembling a collage of all the sounds it could hear before it was happy to let me sleep: waves lapping the lake shore, muffled sounds of faraway fireworks, insects chirping and buzzing, leaves skidding down the tarpaulin above us, dwindling rain.

As the collage became more sophisticated and its composite sounds more familiar, I imagined fewer bear footsteps and approaching conversations and sleep came easily.

Getting up at 6.30 to avoid capture by park rangers means we’ve had a much more leisurely day, too.


#16: Cycling is…

A succession of never-agains. We pass through towns and lives and businesses in one direction; returning to a place more than once feels unusual. I realised this when we ate breakfast at a motel we’d had a beer at the night before and returning stood out as a novelty.

Temporary companionships, with varying lengths of temporary.  Ranging from short conversations in gas station forecourts, to shared campsite evenings and maybe breakfasts, to a few days riding together. Encounters are always fleeting, but enriching.

An ever-expanding patchwork of knowledge. People value different things and have their own unique experiences to recount and advice to share. So we accumulate a great cross-section of knowledge including Canadian history, local tips, French slang, opinions on the world, solutions to its various problems, and an endless amount more.

Gradual depletions. Of energy, food, money, cleanliness, quality of gear, lubrication of moving parts, concerns about wild-camping or encountering bears.

Gradual increases. Of endurance, daily distances, distances between rest stops, stories to tell afterwards, people met, names learned, moments shared.

Delayed gratifications. You think about a cold soda for thirty miles before you can satiate the thirst and wash away the fatigue of cycling for two hours. You know there’s a toilet in the next section, but you don’t know exactly where.

Inordinate pleasure in restoring yourself to the baseline. Laundry is a privilege, as is a cup of proper coffee in the morning. In town, sleeping in a bed is incomparable to tent and sleeping bag and roll-mat, but at the end of each day camping, tent and sleeping bag and roll-mat is inordinately luxurious.

Arbitrary decisions. Our destination, route, time-frame, diet, budget and attitude is completely up to us. Many times we’ve found ourselves walking with conviction through a town for several minutes before realising neither of us know where we’re going, then bumping into someone or something interesting that makes the decision for us. Curating some of the experience and having this supplemented by random encounters and experiences is rewarding and liberating.

Small accomplishments. Getting to the top of a hill is an achievement, and one you can enjoy multiple times in a day. This is why hills are preferable to headwind: even though you put in the same effort riding each, you can turn around an look at what you’ve achieved when you hit a summit. Arriving in a town that was 80 miles away this morning gives you a buzz of satisfaction every time. As does looking at the ever-lengthening lines we’re marking on our maps.

Occasional hassles. These are inevitable, manageable and forgettable (except for the lessons you learn to prevent them happening again).

Small, simple, frequent and constant pleasures.


#15: strong coffee, strong day

Regardless of what the newspapers would have you believe, strangers are a continuous source of kindness and generosity.

This is a theme I’ve touched on before and I don’t want to get repetitive, but it’s important. And Canadians keep astounding me.

Today one of my favourite terrain features – the occasional mile or so of flat land you get at the top of a big hill where you ride on a plateau rather than descending straight away – was bolstered by Dave and Shelly who, after the climb, pulled up on the shoulder ahead of us, waved us down (“we’ve got a beer for you!”), and handed us two ice-cold, award-winning cans of Open Road.

The beer, brewed local to their home in Red Deer, has perhaps the most perfect blurb on the can:

“Sun on your back and wind in your hair. Nowhere to be and no rush to get there. Freedom. Whether it’s on two wheels or four, a big ol’ motor between your legs or pedals under your feet, there is nothing quite like that feeling of cruising down the open road. So when you get to where you’re going, don’t forget to pause and celebrate the journey. Raise a glass to following your bliss.”

Never has beer articulated so perfectly what I’m feeling.

Buoyed by cold beer, excellent conversation and a flat mile before a big downhill, we pushed onward to the next rest stop at Ashburton Bay. It was bare in facilities (one picnic table, no toilets) but rich in views and company: a stream of vehicles and occupants rolled in, each bringing different conversation.

(If you’re mentioned here and I forgot to ask your name, email to let me know!)

The train-anorak biker gang took photos of the mile-long cargo train trudging along below, debating whether it was CN or Canadian Pacific. They told us stories of driving trains cross-province and congratulated us on using our legs to power our bikes rather than gas.

The Scandinavian chap stroking a tabby cat on a leash told us of his cycle adventures around Norway and Finland in the 90s and his hikes in the Yukon. He asked about mileage, number of punctures, number of broken spokes, and various other questions more intricate than we usually get. It was nice to converse with someone who knows the beast, and interesting to get his Maverick approach to gears (“do you guys use the lower gears when you climb hills? I never did”).

We felt enriched and ready to leave when Jesse asked “fancy a cup of coffee?” – a question it’s impossible to say no to (and a question I’d already been asked earlier in the day by a chatty motel attendant: two free coffees in a day!).

While I drank the strong and rejuvenating cup he told us of his trumpet and accordion duet, jazz bars and swing dance nights in Montreal, his various criss-crossings of Canada, and things to see in New Brunswick. We compared tiny stoves, then set off on our way, further enriched and ready to leave.

For the next stretch I felt buzzing from caffiene and conversation.

I am so grateful for the constant reminders that seemingly everyone has something to say, questions to ask, and something they are interested in or proud of and would like to share.

And if a grimy, topless, dreadlocked man eating plain rice at a picnic table 20 miles from the nearest town can attract this type of conversation, I feel like anyone can.

So go say hi to someone and see what they have to share.


#14: Head-down highway days

The Trans-Canada highway runs 8030km from Victoria in the west to St. John’s in the east. We’ve flirted with it before on the ride but this is our longest continuous stretch at 430 miles so far with 300 to go.

Kenora to Borup’s Corners was beautiful. There were lakes around every corner, the hills were gentle and rolling. We rode at the pace we expected to hit in the flat Prairies, energised by the new scenery and unhindered by a headwind.

Riding 60+ miles in a day has gone from daunting at the start of the tour to easy now. The gaps between rest stops are increasing too, sometimes up to 35 miles. Our gear is consolidated and refined; roadside repair (currently exclusively Kristian’s domain) is more efficient and effective.

It’s going well. We are two well-oiled machines riding two well-oiled machines.

We spent two nights wild-camping next to lakes, the first loud and next to a highway, the second secluded and offering a beautiful sunset and fresh water to wash in.

We also got caught short by our logic that if a town is on the map it will have a shop, and ran out of food that could be eaten cold (this was before we replaced our stoves). Sharon and Cliff saved us from malnutrition by inviting us in, boiling our twelve eggs, and feeding us toast, coffee and decades of accrued life advice.

“Buy a piece of land when you’re young, a bit outside a city so it’s cheap. Build on it gradually. Train as an electrician or a plumber and you’ll never be out of work. Don’t try to get rich, just live one what you need. Learn to use your hands. Watch the documentary about Victorian England.”

Actual advice from elderly people outside of your family is quite rare but always well intentioned, even if you don’t agree with it all. Listening to Cliff reminded me of Baz Luhrmann’s Sunscreen.

After a few days the default scenery of trees and shrubs gets a bit monotonous and you beging to feel ungrateful for riding twenty miles without looking up. The lakes and vistas earlier in the ride have spoiled us.

But the scenery has changed enough in the past couple of days to make it fresh again. The highway winds through chasms of rock that were dynamited to make room for the road. You can see the back of the bore holes the dug and filled with dynamite to blow it open.

 

People we’ve spoken to have promised that the next section becomes especially beautiful.

Lake Superior isn’t far away, although it’s been obscured by trees and roadworks all the way. I’m writing this beside the road while Kristian repairs another issue with his bike, and ahead I can see a slither of the lake which barely hints at its actual size.

We’ve been told about impressive and potentially spooky fog that sits over the lake in the daytime, before moving inland later in the day.

We’ve also been told about how beautiful the islands dotting the lake are, by a guy who was genuinely distraught that he hadn’t brought his spare boat, “otherwise I could’ve given it to you guys and you could’ve explored the river”.

Just more examples of the curiosity and generosity that follow us wherever we go. Tips we’ve collected recently include location of really good pie, and a bunch of free camping spots for cyclists.

The horizon is a wall of trees and rock. The forest alone is impressive, but the wall of red rock behind it which has another layer of trees above the first treeline, and one half way up, is something else.

As I appreciated the majesty, a huge hill appeared around a corner to whisk us up for a closer look. The first proper hill we’ve ridden since B.C.

“I dare you to ask the next person if the Lake is the Atlantic Ocean”, Kristian said half way up, causing me to have a short stop because it’s impossible to pedal up a hill while laughing.

From the viewpoint just up the road though, it really did look like the ocean.


#13: rubbish

Last Friday several hundred dollars of our food and camping gear were mistakenly collected as garbage, crushed, and sent to landfill.

This was quite annoying.

Following advice we’d received previously on the trip from a park ranger employed by the Canadian government, we stored food in the back of the bear-proof bins that you find at picnic spots and campgrounds. Early in the morning the bin was emptied, and the bin-men took our stuff as well.

We went to the Goose Sanctuary just up the road from our campsite to ask the Manitoba Parks employee (Adam) for help in getting our stuff back.. Our explanation was met with laughter and disbelief, but also a willingness to help. He radioed around to find out who emptied the bins and whether our stuff had been found, then tried to extract information from me about who told us the advice in the first place, presumably so he could be disciplined.

I resisted the attempts to grass them up: it may have been awful advice but the giver was nice and was trying to help.

We sat in limbo in Rennie Hotel for an hour or so, eating breakfast and waiting for a call to let us know whether our stuff was in landfill or elsewhere.

We chose a window seat so we could see our bikes, feeling a higher baseline vigilance about our bikes and gear.

We mentally added up the value of what was taken.

Our toothpaste and brushes were in the bags too, so I felt self-conscious about that.

We tried not to think about the state of our 12 eggs.

No call came so we headed back to Adam, and he suggested going to the Manitoba Parks office just up the road. Here more calls were made, more disbelief was shown, and some sympathy was given (bordering on hinting that we were idiots for following the original advice: “I guess the best thing to do next time, would be to not keep your bags in the garbage”).

To clarify now: our stuff was not ‘in’ the garbage. It was in a separate section accessible only from the back of the bin, under the bag of rubbish.

After waiting a while we heard “oh yeah that load is gone, it’s been crushed already in the truck and sent to landfill” come through a radio receiver.

Crushed along with our hopes and dreams.

“What shall we do?” I asked Kristian.
“Keep riding our bikes”.

So we set off.

I felt annoyed for the first few miles. Then I realised that the cost and effort to resolve the situation is the same either way, so I may as well not be annoyed. The rest of the day was spent trying to reconcile that realisation with actual acceptance.

While we ate a multi-pack of cereal for lunch, a Manitoba Parks garbage truck pulled up. It was pretty light duty, to the point where recently added garbage would probably be salvageable. So I asked the lady driving it what she thought of the situation. She said the stuff would be somewhere in the back of a pick-up truck (“the big garbage trucks don’t empty the site you lost your stuff from”), or at the Jessica Lake recycling site, or on its way to the big disposal facility in Winnipeg. She seemed genuinely sorry for us and didn’t seem to think we were idiots, which was reassuring (“if I’d seen camping gear under the bin, I’d have left it there”).

Kristian and I debated what to do for a while. Detouring to Jessica Lake and trawling through the top-layer of landfill seemed a viable option to me considering the cost of the gear involved, but time was ticking. Every minute presumably meant more garbage being dumped on our stuff, and we weren’t sure how far away Jessica Lake was. Calling the operator from the payphone didn’t work, an entry in the phone book returned only robotic apologies, and there was
no wifi.

We relucatantly decided to bite the bullet and abandon our stuff.

This was also when we realised we’d lost the huile d’olive.