The night was punctuated by headlamps shooting light beams near the edges of my tent. Two pit toilets were 100 meters from my tent and cars and trucks taking a break from Highway 17 would roll in for a pee. My tent was in a wooded nook, not terribly hidden but most car travelers don’t venture more than a few feet from their vehicles so it seemed relatively safe. Every time I heard wheels roll through I would shuffle quietly to the foggy plastic window of my tent and press my face close, trying to decipher footsteps and make sure that no one got curious about a bike leaning up next to a picnic bench. I tried to talk myself through the paranoia but it’s hard to feel brave alone on a mountaintop, limbs stuffed into a puffy sack. I kept my knife blade ready as a sort of compromise with emotions. I remember spying smudged stars dotted across the black sky through the plastic peephole. The first I’ve seen the entire journey.
I woke up unsteady and a bit hungover from worst case scenario loop. I only had a little over a liter of water so I had enough for a short coffee and to wash my hands after another day of Blood Management. I was wise enough to wander out to the lookout with my camera when I was sipping on my coffee and take a snap, to try to convince myself things weren’t as rough as they felt.
My knees were still tender from yesterday’s climb and I spent ten minutes brushing snarls out of my hair while mentally mapping out the rest of the day. I knew from the gravy boat neighbor at the diner the day before that there would be some serious climbs and I already felt a bit deflated. But I got on the bike, and rolled off gently trying to be kind to the last bit of cartilage in my joints.
I don’t know how to describe the next part without getting into the absolutely gorgeous tedium that it involved, but it was a series of sharp inclines up to beautiful lake vista peaks followed by a deadly face plant descent that left my disc brakes hot to the touch and kegel muscles clenched like never before. Throughout these hours of grinding there are two competing thoughts that are vying for supremacy of my brain: absolute frustration at the never-ceasing ups and downs and a deep gratification for being able to experience that crushing panorama of profound blue lake. Like the day before, most of the uphill climbs are done dragging my bike upwards and gently asking for its cooperation and to not pivot suddenly and collapse on me when I go to scratch my nose.
Around 10 am the highway cuts towards the lake and temporary construction signs indicate that a stoplight is ahead and that traffic will be shrunk down to one lane. I see a small general store/tourist hunk/small town diner combo on my left and stopped hopeful for a hot cup of coffee (my standards for what I consider real coffee at this point are pretty much “brown” and “hot”). Walking in, on my left is a small restaurant with worn in tables and a crowd of regulars that I imagine have their own individual butt prints on each seat. To the right is a small store that sells fishing lures, gaudy tee shirts, all sorts of gemstones and more than vaguely racist First Nation paraphernalia like moccasins and items dotted with feathers. There were maybe a few bags of chips and a dimly lit cooler, but snacks were light. It was a time travel to the odd tourist trap stores that I remember going to in the UP of Michigan as a little girl. I ask for a coffee to go at the counter and cross my fingers that they take cards as I didn’t have any Canadian money and had low expectations for technology. The man just looked at me funny and grabbed the credit card machine. This is one of Canada’s odd blessings. You can be in the middle of nowhere and cell service is sketchy but by golly you can pull over to any roadside stand and they’ll have a chip reading credit card machine. While waiting for my coffee I wander into the hallway in between the restaurant and store and peruse the message board, which is covered with faded newspaper trimmed comics about fishing, neatly typed letters with Bible verses and bolded phrases on the need to accept Jesus NOW (limited time offer!) and a photograph of two men, one is on a loaded touring bike and the other one is up high on a penny farthing and they are holding hands and smiling. I tentatively place the date of the photograph to the nineties? I didn’t get a snap of it with my cell phone and this is a regret. I wonder if both of them made it all around the lake…..
I quickly slugged back my coffee and got back on my bike for the next round of mountain climbs. My brain was rumbling with ideas so I kept pausing during climbs to scratch out thought onto ripped journal pages stuffed into my fanny pack. May none of these delusional thoughts ever see public light. Most of them involve elaborate planning of a presentation of this very journey, including French voiceovers and velcro ripaway clothing and a sense of the absurd that no one wants during a lecture on bike touring.
I finally get another short break from climbs after a rushing glide downhill into the stretch near Rossport. This section of Highway 17 is one of the few that feature any signs for restaurants/motels/tourist attractions, which is quite nice from an aesthetic point of view but occasionally frustrating for a lone bike traveller who doesn’t get cell service and wants to know the distance to the next gas station. Rossport features a nice wooden sign and logo but the advertisements for Schreiber (just about 20 km away) featured a big red train. I don’t know of anyone who would be woo’d by the prospect of railroad museum that is over the age of ten, but what do I know. I still call them “choo-choos”. Since these two towns are so close, I imagine they are vying for the same small pool of tourist cash so that lil engine on the Schreiber logo tucked next to some cute trees might pull in some extra business. No mention of Schreiber being the site of one of the Japanese-Canadian internment camps during WWII though….
After a beautiful beach stretch where I was able to cruise and enjoy the lake a bit, another stretch of hills built upward and the morning’s coffee was long out of my system and the meager peanut butter and pita breakfast was long flamed out. My muscles got gummy and each new hill was trying on my patience. Like a magical beacon, the signs started to appear HUNGRY MOOSE RESTAURANT followed by the sultry FREE WIFI. “When will I reach this oasis?” I shouted at sky. THIRTY MINUTES AWAY the sign posted. The end was soon! I would be swimming in french fries and the pleasant ding of inbox messages in less than an hour! I am a full believer that nothing makes unnecessary suffering more bearable than the knowing when the discomfort will be over. I kept cranking away on those pedals, my focus on pushing those kilometers behind me. It was after another 45 minutes of biking and another wave of exhaustion set in that I finally set myself to logically thinking about those signs and realized that the time frame was for King Car and not for the lowly bike tourist. Thirty minutes in a car was easily an hour and a half on bike, especially in these curvy ups and downs, which in a car can be easily glided over. But the HUNGRY MOOSE signs kept coming, enticing me with only 15 MINUTES AWAY when the reality was much more brutal. By the time I reached the Hungry Moose it was 3 pm and I just hoped it was still willing to serve me in that awkward not-quite-lunch-nor-dinner time.
There was a lone woman manning the Hungry Moose and she was fine with fixing me lunch. I ordered a sliced beef and peppers sandwich with dipping gravy, a side of fries and a coke. I asked her if she had a cell phone charger handy. Oh yeah, I forgot to mention. All of my chargers were just USB cords, I completely forgot to bring a wall adapter. The lack of cell phone juice has been a continual thorn in my paw and the reason I’ve taken so few snapshots and communicated rarely. Even with the new battery I purchased in Duluth, my phone doesn’t hold charge very long and it is a constant source of frustration. Luckily, the fine dame at the Hungry Moose found a cell phone charger so me and the phone both refueled. The decor was north woods kitch and the tables were sparse but there was a big screen television that was glowing with the handsome visage of Justin Trudeau, debating some sort of trade deal on Canadian CNN. I gobbled down the sandwich and stuffed fistfulls of fries in my face while Trudeau worked his charm on my road weary heart. I ordered a second round of fries and poured more salt on top, mopping up every drop of the brown gravy. All the calories hit my body like a brick. I ask the woman in charge about possible campsites nearby and she starts slinging me tall tales about bears. I was fully aware of the fact that the restaurant was the bottom section of a modest motel. I thank her for her concern, grab my bike and wander back onto the road.
I only have a few scant hours until sundown and I’m considering my camping options, which are pretty minimal unless I decide to crash into the bush. The next town I roll into is Terrace Bay and I am welcomed on the outskirts by a slick tourism center, built by Ontario province dollars. I wander inside hoping for some tips on where to camp and chat with the women at the front desk and find very quickly that there are three motels in town but no sort of local campground. I take a mini Canadian flag pin from the dish and decide to treat myself to a real bed. The three motels are all in a row on the main strip of town, located right on the highway. I roll into the first one, which is attached to a gas station and restaurant and I’m told not to go to the third motel, but to the second one which is much cleaner and nicer. Ah ha. Okay. I head to the second motel and snatch up their last room. The woman at the front desk mentioned something about mine shutting down as the reason for all the rooms being filled but I was mostly distracted by her 5 year old daughter peeling a tangerine and offering slices to her mom. The scent from the peels filled the office and her bounce and affection gave me something to smile about. I went to my room and flung about all of my things and organized them into the loose piles. I grabbed the ice bucket and head back to the front office and ask about where I could buy a cell phone charger. The front desk woman tells me there is a small electronics store, but they shut down at 5 pm and it’s already 4:50 pm. My city slicker brain still cannot wrap around the idea of all stores shutting by 6 pm. I hustle back to my room to drop off the ice bucket than mosey over to the tiny strip mall behind the motel and stroll past the electronics store and then also the pharmacy with hopes they might still be open a little late perchance. No dice. Next is the supermarket where I stupidly wander around with a grapefruit sparkling water until this woman unloading boxes asks me if I’m finding everything alright. I say yes but ask her if she knows of anyplace that might be open that might sell phone chargers and she gives me the same answer as the front office clerk but since i’m giving her the woe poor bike traveller spiel she asks me what motel I’m staying in and when I respond she looks into my eyes and says “right answer”. She owns the supermarket I’m standing in along with the motel where I’m bunked up and decides that she’ll loan me her charger for the evening. I notice her impeccably highlighted cropped hair and silver jewelery on her wrists and ears as she digs into her handbag for the charger. I have been in town less than two hours but I know that I have made a powerful ally. She lets me know that I can just drop off the charger at the front office tomorrow and I thank her warmly. I completely forget to buy any real food. But to the liquor store I go! I buy a grapefruit radler, a hard cider and some sort of local pilsner, all tallboys and soon I return to my room with a paper bag full of booze.
I stepped into the bright pink bathroom (complete with fluffy kitty tissue box perched on the top of the toilet) and took a skin puckering hot shower while sipping radler. The TV is cranked loud and the original Ghostbusters is on the screen and I spend the rest of the night eating teriyaki jerky and spoons of peanut butter and drinking every drop of sweet boozy nectar and I don’t even feel a bit of a buzz, just exhaustion. I keep rotating the ice on each of my knees and hoping for some sort of relief but I’m too tired to even really give weight to the pain. I feel homesick and foolish. Isolating myself in this corner of the globe and tapping out blog posts on my phone and rolling through all these emotions that I can’t even quite process. I fall asleep unsteady at 12:30 am and around 4 am the sharp digital bleeps scream out of the motel room phone. After three rings I pick it up and shout into the receiver. There is no one there.
DISTANCE RIDDEN: 70 km (give or take since I still can’t find that picnic spot on the map)
SONG OF THE DAY: “I Lost Something in These Hills” by Sibylle Baier