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Canada 2017

#1: Beginnings

My head hits a pillow, 27 hours and 4700 miles after waking up.

I rummage in the dark through my day bag, and my mind generates questions: will this bag be safe next to my pillow? Where should valuables be kept overnight? How fucked am I if it gets stolen? Isn’t it ironic that earplug packaging is so loud to open?

A hostel dorm in Vancouver is a good place to ask these questions. It’s safe and quiet enough that they probably won’t be relevant, but it’s a scratty enough part of town that I don’t feel paranoid asking them. (Scratty is fair: people were being arrested just outside the hostel a few minutes before writing this).

There were more questions while waiting for the connecting flight in Toronto earlier: will the baggage handlers respect the word ‘FRAGILE‘ emblazoned all over the thing plastic bags covering our bikes? Will the stickers stay on our weird luggage? (Kristian and I brought an ancient strapless scouting duffel bag and a thin linen sack, respectively, to put our pannier bags in during the flight). How many of our possessions are in the same continent as us currently, and how many are stranded on some tarmac or being detonated by security forces back in Gatwick?

But, as usual, it all turned out fine.

Luggage arrived, bikes were delivered unbent and unbroken to the oversized luggage section. We reassembled them under the curious and suspicious eye of other luggage-waiters, then rode them 10 miles through Vancouver suburbs to the hostel.

Already the trip has brought conversations, connections, comparisons.

Comparisons from the lads on our flight who will cycle from Vancouver to Mexico, and who immediately discounted the credibility of their trip in relation to ours (“it’s nothing like yours, it’s only 2000 miles!” . Rubbish of course, it’s every bit as credible as any other bike ride).

Conversations with the bum in the street who approached us for money “for beer or ganja”, and who proclaimed “holy mackerel, you boys will have fun!”; conversations with the family in the connections queue who run a safari reserve in Uganda, and lead mountain bike tours accompanied by a gun-wielding bike-riding ranger to pacify rowdy bison; conversations with the excellent fellow on the plane who used our ride as a springboard from which to reminisce about adventures he’d had in his youth, and from which to recommend Canadian highlights to us that we might enjoy.

A quote from Ted Simon sits in my mind:

“Essentially we all live two lives simultaneously. One of them is made up of all the plans, hopes, ambitions and expectations we have woven around ourselves. The other consists in just being alive. Sometimes it is extremely hard to switch from one to the other, from expectations to reality.”

The honest and open interactions with complete strangers already make the gradual un-weaving of plans, hopes, ambitions and expectations that characterise the last few months of my life seem less reckless, and point to the new reality being woven being a fun and rewarding one.

And this is before I’ve even seen anything of Canada beyond night-time suburbs and rainy views from the hostel window this morning.

Bring it on!

#2: Thievery, sunsets, promises of rockabilly

Yesterday was the trials and tribulations stage of the trip. Some minor criminals supplemented our list of errands by thieving various bits from our bikes: from mine, my helmet and the thing that connects the front wheel to the bike. From Kristian’s, a water bottle.

It’s not much but we had to visit four bike shops and spend $80 to get back to where we had already been a few hours before. Briefly annoying, but a good  opportunity to practice that pretentious stoicism that makes life on the road a bit easier.

Also a good opportunity to drop another Ted Simon quote. (If you haven’t read him, you should):

“Up to this time in my life – and that’s a long time – I have been a lucky person. Not that everything has turned out the way I wanted. Almost the opposite, in fact, but every new disappointment has led to new & better prospects, so that looking back on my failures I can’t bring myself to regret any of them”

That sentiment is on my mind a lot so far. The knowledge that things will inevitably go wrong, or be difficult, but that new and exciting things will arise from this – it’s a good motivator.

And it’s proven true already. After replacing our pilfered gear we stopped off at a dispensary to pick up some marijuana (because it’s basically legal here, and when in Rome!), then rode through the dominion of condos that is downtown Vancouver, through some leafy avenues, and into Stanley Park.

The park is a car-friendly tourist-accessible snapshot of Canada’s wilder side: bike trails zigzag off in different directions leading to beaches and bridges and lookouts. Triangular trees soar upward, a subtle reminder that you’ve entered a terrain that’s a whole lot more rugged and majestic than what we’ve left behind.

After riding aimlessly around the trails for a while we found ‘Third Beach’ and sat, basking in the sun, listening to songs, looking out onto the Pacific Ocean. A lady came over to ask if she could buy a joint (apparently it’s very obvious from far away what we were up to), and we started talking.

She lives in Calgary, was visiting Vancouver on business, and invited us to a party with live Rockabilly band if we manage to get there in time (complete with place to pitch our tents in the garden). What an excellent motivation to ride 600 miles, and excellent karmic offset to having helmets and bottles swiped that morning.

And a perfect example of a disappointment leading to new and better prospects.

Here are some photos. They are trapped in my camera because I don’t have an SD card adaptor yet, so I just took a photo on my phone.

sunset couple Pacific sunset

#3: first day on the bikes

The first day of the tour, when hypotheticals become actuals.

Lines on maps become roads unravelling in front of you.

Elevation profiles become hills, and each brings the knowledge that there are many, many more to go. Along with the reminder that everything you need to survive really is a lot of weight to pull up a hill with your legs.

Stories continue to be collected, almost as frequently as the miles and places that underpin them. Today’s began with us meeting a lovely couple at a map sign in Kanaka Creek Provincial Park and being invited to camp in their garden and swap tales over a beer.

Stories are recounted to us: of Anne & Vic’s van tour of Europe and Asia in their youth. Of their unintended provocation of border and checkpoint guards in a paranoid ’70s Russia. Of demands made on them to lock their canoe to the top of their van to stop someone stealing it and escaping the country by paddle-power.

Other people’s adventures. Reassuring reminders that there are infinite excellent things to do in this world, and plenty of people prepared to do them.

So far the horizon has been mountains. Some are snowcapped, all are the hazy blue that you only ever see on mountains viewed from afar. The definition and colour they gain as you approach is only matched, when cycling, by the daunting feeling and the preemptive aches in your muscles.

Kristian has been practicing his Canadian accent, getting gradually closer via South African, Jamaican, Australian and Irish. So when I asked why my gears were being such jerks as we rode up a hill, where they kept clicking randomly in and out of place, a cheery South African bellowed “awh, it’s because they’re not staying in the right place, mate!!“.

Useful comic relief if nothing else. As was the realisation that for at least a few meters, Kristian and I were going the same speed: him while riding, me while pushing my bike on foot.

#4: landslides, jam, hot tubs

What, a day.

A gruelling 14 mile uphill section with rapidly depleting energy reserves followed our decision to keep riding out of Hope, after we’d ridden 60 miles to get there.

Several breaks for food (and for me, mild despair) were necessary to keep energy levels up, to the point where we both felt sick from the amount of oatcakes and jam we’d crammed into ourselves. The body machine is relentless in its demand for food, regardless of how full you are.

Part of the appeal (and bragging rights) of cycle touring is being able to eat way more than usual and not have to worry about developing a paunch. In Italy this means gelato, pizza and cheese, and it’s great. Today it is less glamorous: oats, oat cakes, jam, peanut butter, five apples, and plain rice.

(We have made a note to pilfer some salt and pepper sachets from the next available eatery so that future rice needn’t be plain).

After dinner at Hope Slide Lookout, fate tested my claim that day 2 in Vancouver was the ‘trials and tribulations’ phase with a series of miscalculations and mishaps.

Firstly we had the exhilarating experience of easing our laden bikes down a steep scree slope to get them to the area we planned to camp in. During this ordeal my pannier strap wound itself almost inextricably round my wheel, locking it in place.

Then, after scree-slope bike repair, futile searching for a camp spot ensued. We realised the site of the largest landslide ever recorded in Canada probably wasn’t the best place to camp, for two reasons: the whole area is uneven rock and a bastard to sleep on, and another landslide may presumably occur, burying us and our bikes and our adventurous spirits forever.

Disheartened, we had to push our bikes back up the scree slope. Kristian’s assertion that this would be easier than the descent, “because we’ve got our weight behind the bikes”, was false.

At the top, just for good measure, my chain fell off.

Such shenanigans are all part of the fun though, and I really mean that (although I did have to give Kristian the disclaimer “sorry if I moan, I am still always enjoying it”). The occasional failed and frustrated attempt to find a campsite is more than offset by the Anne and Vics of this world. Where those experiences are remembered, the frustrations are quickly forgotten and give way to their own relative successes.

For example: we ended up sleeping in an RV park in Sunshine Valley where we paid $10 between us for flat, soft grass to sleep on, access to a laundromat, showers, and, perhaps the best sentence ever, “free hot tubs“.


#5 sunburn, routine, slapstick

We are in Summerland, BC, 266 miles out of Vancouver. Today is our 6th day on the bikes.

Day 4 was the first day where the rhythm felt established, and things felt smooth and rehearsed. A routine is evolving out of disparate tasks.

It was the first day the weather permitted riding topless too, which I think is essential for ‘proper’ bike touring. Both of us are now sunburned to shit, another essential rite of passage.

You start to learn the signals specific to the region you’re riding through. A sign warning vehicles over 27000kg that they need tire chains in winter means a long uphill is coming; a sign telling the same drivers to check their brakes means the opposite.

You lock into the rhythm and sensation of climbing, and begin to stop resenting the fact that each down brings an inevitable up later on. This shift in mindset makes valleys and mountain passes beautiful rather than brutal.

We climbed a long straight nine percent hill, with a line of traffic being held in the other lane. People watched from their cars, expressions ranging from awe to mild pity. Some gestured encouragement, a couple shouted from their windows. My favourite encouragement was:

“Think you can, think you can’t, know you will”

In my mind this perfectly describes the internal battle that happens on hills.

We have been among mountains for days, on roads that are thankfully never more than a fraction of the gradient of the slopes they weave around and cut through.

A river is with us too, sometimes a blue ribbon thousands of feet below, other times a roaring presence beside us.

Day 4 was also the first day that we’ve had a few dry light hours at camp to air things out, tweak gear, tighten nuts and bolts, and generally hang out (quite literally: we set up our hammocks and laid in them for a couple of hours).

The little acts of tidying camp and gear and mind that contribute to that feeling of structure, routine, rhythm.

My favourite part of the routine is the slapstick rigmarole of suspending our food bags up a tree. This involves getting a length of rope over a branch at least four metres off the ground, achieved by putting a stone in a carrier bag, clipping the string to the handle, and throwing it over the branch. When a suitable branch is found, the clip moves from the carrier bag to the food bag and we pull, then tie the other end of the string around a tree. It sounds simple but I really think that if we wore 20s clothes and filmed this in black and white, our efforts would pass as a Laurel and Hardy routine.