The night passed with light rain and a heavy stream of sex terror dreams. Days with minimal human contact and perhaps the pheromones floating in the air from the annual moose rut have wrecked my subconscious and past lovers and lust interests enter into my tent and fill up all the space with something primal. I awake confused and ill rested and try to orient my brain with the brisk air pricking my face and the stench of my riding socks airing out in a mesh pouch above my head. I roll out of the tent and chug down a sobering cup of instant coffee made with cool water, bites of a peanut butter smeared pita serving as breakfast.
Rolled back onto highway 17 and for the first hour traffic was light and I was able to soak in the sun and get some kilometers in without the constant terror of zooming trucks. For vast stretches the highway would roll on without mile markers or billboards and I would remember Bill Bryson’s descriptions of the Australian outback and then I would wonder if anyone is crazy enough to bike through that desert. Then I start to wonder if I should have a Name That Bruise Contest and post a picture of the black n’ blue blob on my inner knee and find out what my friends and acquaintances on the internet can see in the Rorschach test that are my limbs. I personally think it looks like Alaska but I wonder what other people will see. Bike touring allows for mind tangent wandering that is only similar to Sunday church services and 3 pm at a reception desk and you become absolutely convinced that whatever idea floats through your heads is genius! hilarious! oh if only I had some wifi to share the quip with the world!
At one point I see a Suburu cruise past and the entire car is covered in photographs, each one bordered with hot pink duct tape. From the distance they appeared to be pictures of women and I wondered if it was some sort of traveling activist. I remembered reading articles about the murders of indigenous women in Canada and I wonder if this is related, but from the few seconds I had to scan the car, I couldn’t know for sure. Another moment where this ridiculous fantasy quest butts up against reality, that no matter how much fear I feel while alone in my tent I can comfort myself with the knowledge that I have a safe place to travel home to. I think often of those women who don’t feel safety when they sleep. I wonder what they dream about.
My ponder filled ride was interrupted by a patch of construction and the already inhospitable highway becomes even more difficult to navigate. At one point my minimal shoulder ends via a concrete barrier and I try to go around through mounds of thick gravel and I’m pulling my bike like a dead body through this shit and when I get to the end I realize there is another barrier and I’m forced to shuck my panniers off the bike and hoist it over the barrier and re-load it again. I took this photograph because it seemed unreasonable to me.
The visual doesn’t really resonate with me now. But soon after re-mounting my bike I faced thick streams of fast moving traffic, drivers already irritated by the construction delays and trying to make up for lost time. The shoulder I am riding on has now shrunk to 12 inches in width at it’s greatest and for the first time I feel the full brunt of a truck blast, the burst of wind that can come from behind a speeding 16 wheeler and I white knuckled my handlebar as my bike floated into the loose gravel next to me. I wobbled but didn’t fall down. In addition to the disorienting truck blasts, I would occasionally get dusted with the dust of dried pig shit that would flow off the back of trucks carrying animals to slaughter. The instant I would get that first tang of feces I would pull up my scarf to cover my nose and mouth, making sure not to suck it all into my lungs.
The kilometers were getting tougher, the construction move invasive into the highway and my nerves felt like they had been run over a cheese grater. By the time I spotted a truck stop in the distance, I was elated. Except the exhausted can’t elated so I just sighed, exhaling gravel smoke and livestock stink. Rolling into the parking lot I spot a loaded bike leaning up against the outside the truck stop and a man in a highlighter yellow t-shirt standing next to it. A FELLOW TRAVELER? It was rare to see another camper, let another another bike rider. At first I consider it a mirage but by the time I lean my bike up beside his and start to say hello, I feel relief. Both of us just look at each other and exasperated sigh WHAT THE HELL DID WE JUST BIKE THROUGH? I begin to stream out a string of expletives relating to the traffic and the wind while simultaneously grinning from ear to ear at the presence of another human who could possibly understand what the hell I’m ranting about. He holds up the gallon ziplock bag he’s holding full of shower supplies and let’s me know that he is going to go shower (truck stops got it all) but that he’d join me in the diner afterwards. He had some vicious saddle sores and one popped, as I determined through his gestures to his crevices, he had an accent and there were some incomplete phrases but I’m good at this game. I shuffle off to the diner and grab a table and blink off an order of french toast. My good spirits were slightly dampened by the fact that was NO WIFI but I plug in all my devices and start looking over my map for possible spots to sleep tonight.
The bike traveler slid into my table just as my three slices of french toast had arrived, along with three white sausage links that had been split down the middle and pressed down onto the flattop which made them heavenly golden and a bit crisp. The three slices of french toast are pilled onto a small platter and I instantly dump two tubs of cheap maple syrup on top and scoop out each single serving of butter the waitress provided and smear it on top. The petroleum that I’m not using from car travel is definitely being budgeted to the single serve creamer/butter/maple syrup containers I leave in my wake after each meal. Each piece of toast is light but eggy substantial and if angels exist they are Ontario truck stop griddle masters, I remove my cap in awe at their skills.
Oh yeah, back to the human sitting in front of me! I suffer from selective hearing once a plate of food is placed in front of me, everything just becomes a low hum and until it is licked clean I don’t really register much of anything that is going on outside of the plate to face pipeline. But he is here with salt and pepper wavy hair and a bright shirt and possesses that calm that only arrives after a much needed shower. He orders an omelette and I’m surprised when he doesn’t order coffee. He sniffs at my cream and sugar sludge and declares it to not be coffee. He likes espresso. Oh well, isn’t that so continental of you, sir! He’s Polish and he tells me that he goes by Nestor but I try to pronounce his actual name in Polish and he produces a combination of an eye roll and a sigh that I haven’t seen since high school. Nestor, I’ll stick with Nestor. He is 43 and a former international tax attorney (“oooh, that sounds interesting!” “it’s not” he sighs again) who decided to change his life once he turned 40 and started bike touring. He’s biked through Australia and confirms that rural Ontario is pretty bleak, but nothing like the outback. He’s heading across Canada towards Toronto and to find a job of sorts to get money so he can keep traveling. Nestor picks up one of the tubs of maple syrup with curiosity and I tell him to stick a finger in and try it, telling him its sweet. He hesitates but finally tries a bit and just simply shrugs. I try to explain that the real stuff is better, but he isn’t hearing it.
I tell him about my fussy knees and he states that I’m likely not eating enough salt. Like a kindergartner seeking to impress her new playground buddy with a gross out, I grab the salt shaker and twist of the top and pour a tablespoon of salt into the palm of my left hand and slam it into my mouth at once. It feels like sand on the flat of my tongue and my body merely shrugs. NOT A GOOD SIGN. Nestor creates another facial combination of an eye roll and giggle and his amusement takes the edge of the internal meltdown I am having regarding my poor nutrition. At this point Nestor’s omelette arrives, the size of a baby seal studded with ham bits and peppers and with a stack of hot buttered toast next to it. I begin to sneak slices of toast.
Sometimes I forget that I speak quick, slimy with strange vocabulary and bits of slang I like and with grammatical carelessness and a slight lisp as a cherry on top. Poor Nestor is trying to follow along with my particular brand of American language, a whirred milkshake of Hunter S. Thompson, Valerie Solanas and a Tarantino protagonist, pushed into overdrive from social isolation and a caffeine high. After the first hour he settles in and we plot the next section as he pulls up a saved google map to show a picnic area around 30 km away, which seems close until we start to take into account the upcoming mountains. A large man with a gravy boat perched on the edge of his table chimed in. “The hills that are coming up are big.” I just sigh and “fuck” plops out of my mouth. Nestor laughs and says how much he admires the word “fuck” and all the emotions that it can contain. I prefer it as punctuation to unspeakable emotion. I have a moment of quiet victory when he takes the last piece of toast and starts to dunk it into the maple syrup. Our conversation is winding through past travels and dream tours and why normal life is boring when over the diner floats the first few moans. I fling up my hands and shout HOLD ON A SEC to Nestor as Mariah Carey’s voice grows loud and I begin singing along with gusto as Nestor is just confused but at this point used to the feeling and let’s me have my moment. I know it is time for us to now say goodbye. We pay our checks and I stuff salt packets into my dry bag and walk out to the bikes. Nestor hands me a bag of Maynard’s Swedish berries and tells me to eat a bag a day “for my knees”. Stealing my heart with those gummi candies, m’dear. We ride together for a short stretch before we shout our bon voyages over the roar of trucks. Goodbye Nestor, you glacier blue eyed Polish papi! We’ll always have Nipigon! GOOD LUCK WITH YOUR BUTT!
Right outside of Nipigon the highway begins to scale upwards and gravy boat man wasn’t exaggerating. The “short” jaunt of 30 km to the picnic grounds where I would be crashing seemed to be far off. My knees were still aching and although Nestor’s company gave me a boost, I still felt worn down from the morning’s slog. A weird quirk I developed was taking a selfie when I am feeling unsure or upset. Maybe it was because I see so few mirrors in comparison to my normal life or I’m just vain or I can’t believe in my own existence without an image to confirm it (PSYCHOANALYZE ME PLEASE) but anytime the going got rough, the tough took a selfie.
At this point I have no idea where I’m going to sleep for the night, but gosh darn it the sun is shining and let’s just make it work. The climbs may be brutal but the view is absolutely gorgeous. I reach Kama Bay, which is the northernmost point of Lake Superior. A milestone! I’m moving forward! Nothing is futile! Progress is being made! MY KNEEEEES.
I was running out of daylight, as I had left the truck stop around 3 pm and only had a few hours to get to the picnic spot before night crept in. But the views! I could have stopped every ten minutes to take another Impressive Vista photograph. And would you look at that narrow shoulder! You’ll get to experience the beautiful blue expanse of Lake Superior, but you just may lose your life to a logging truck doing it. But seriously, at this section of Ontario, Mama Lake puts parts of the Pacific Ocean to shame.
I finally find the picnic area at the very top of the mountain, it is a short path from off the highway and there is a pair of pit toilets and two spaces that were a bit nestled into the woods, with a small clearing and a concrete picnic table. Essentially, they were the same as any campsite I had been to in Canada. I notice there is a small trail to a look out but I’m focused on getting set up. I pitch my tent and make a pot of chicken flavored ramen with strips of teriyaki jerky, sprinkle of Vietnamese curry powder and a packet of soy sauce (DAT SODIUM), chili blend, dried shiitakes and avocados. While I’m cooking dinner a mini van pulls up and a man wanders to the trail to look at the vista. He sees me and I wave, trying not to seem concerned. At this point I realize that I am at a picnic spot on an isolated spot on a mountain top, accessible to anyone off the highway and I am alone and there is no good place to run if the worst occur. Yep, yep, great. The man asks me if I’m with the other biker who is down the mountain, he saw him snapping photos on the side of the road. I imagine this is Nestor and I wonder if I should do that bullshit thing that women do and be like “oh yes he’s my HUSBAND and I’m just waiting for him” but I don’t and explain that I’d met him but I’m here alone. The man explains that he’s from Winnepeg and that he was traveling through and wanted to stop because he remembered coming by here as a child, but there was much more tourism then. He kept digging through his van to find something to offer me, he has a small cooler and I tell him I’m fine but he pulls out a bunch of bananas and we all know I won’t refuse a banana. “They’re organic. My wife gets ’em for me” the man obviously indifferent to fruit or health. He says goodbye with a look of concern on his face. I’m sure he also did the same anxiety calculus in his head that I did in mine. What about the bad men. The bad men.
I grab the pot and wander over to the lookout and allow myself to appreciate the expanse for at least a few moments while my safety concerns churn. The sun melts into the treeline and I am telling myself to accept these circumstances. I can’t prevent death of any type, not the ones from speeding trucks or random murderers or even lung cancer or old age. So maybe I should just enjoy the damn sunset.
DISTANCE RIDDEN: 81 kilometers
SONG OF THE DAY: Highway 61 Revisited by Bob Dylan. So beat.
HAPPY PLACE: large cheese pizza with Robert and Aurica. unlimited soda.