big payback

DAY 19:

I awake to sunshine warming the inside of the tent and the soft sounds of calm waters licking the shore. I shake a few ants out of my plastic cup, notice that for the first time in a few days my rain fly is DRY and munch down the rest of that delicious chocolate bar. I spend a meditative few minutes on the bench down by the beach, eat two bananas and offer deep gratitude to the lake for her lessons and her mercy. My clothes are still in the kiosk (!!!) and are somewhat drier but nothing close to what I was hoping for. I strap them onto the top of my sleeping bag so that they can flutter in the wind and catch some strong sun. I push off further down Highway 17 through Lake Superior Provincial Park.


Today is fucking gorgeous. The temperature is just cool enough that I won’t be sweating through water and a light sweater is all I need to keep away the chill from the breeze rolling off the lake. An hour into my ride and I stop and make an instant coffee with the last bit of water in the pouch and eat a peanut butter smeared pita while taking in the incredible view.


Once all the calories and caffeine hit my belly, it is a merry cruise. Traffic is light and my mind is able to wander freely and I try to list off all the professional writers I know who write “serious stuff” but also write about food. Roxane Gay, Laurie Colwin and of course Nora Ephron, who once wrote an entire essay flaming her former boss Dorothy Schiff and then ends the piece with a recipe for beef borscht. Timeless. Effortless kilometers fly by and I soon end up at the Lake Superior Provincial Park visitor center in Agawa Bay.


It is a brand new building with a spacious lobby, stuffed animal filled gift shop and a vast museum/educational section that leads to an enormous wooden porch and walkway that juts out to the lake. I buy 15 minutes of internet access and two Kerig pods that I can juice into hot coffee with the machine in the lobby. I have a deep dialogue with the adorable baby with their parents in the gift shop. After so man days without deep human conversation, I can really only interact with babies and dogs without getting overwhelmed. I log on to a desktop computer located near the spinning racks of books and I feel a certain nostalgia for my afternoons spent in internet cafes in Brazil, writing long emails to friends and family back home and keeping a close eye on the timer at the top of the screen. I log onto Facebook and see that my friend Mariah is rolling out on her own bike adventure today, she rode around Lake Superior last summer and provided me words of encouragement as I planned my trip and throughout this entire journey. Another cherry onto top of this hot fudge sundae of a day, knowing that she was out there pedaling along. A few more messages to friends, a quick message to some possible Warm Showers hosts and I log out and start browsing through the books.


A local true crime thriller, oooooh! I flip through and discover that it is a juicy tale, of homosexuality, intrigue, a love triangle and MURDER. If I had room in my panniers, dear reader, I would have bought it in an instant. I instead buy a patch and pin, I used to collect them when I traveled to different state parks as a kid and a batch of postcards. I refill my coffee with the second kerig pod and wander to the Adirondack chairs on the porch and proceed to write some pretty smug postcards, especially the one to my old office. It is amazing how a bit of sunshine and caffeine will make you forget the knee aching, soggy butt hardships and pretend that everything is rainbows and tailwinds. I fill up all my water vessels with fresh water, which I didn’t have since the Tim Horton’s in Wawa and filled up my handlebar snack bag with the fancy trail mix that has hazelnuts and dried apricots and shifted around the drying clothes on the back of the bike. And we’re off!


The leaves have finally started to show their fall colors and the highway has started to become speckled with swaths of bright red and deep orange. The road keeps close to the lake and soon I am cranking through the classic up and downs of the superior shoreline, each time I fly down a skull cracking incline I cry out HOLD ON TO YOUR BUTTS and seek protection from each of the orixás and hope that my drying t-shirt doesn’t fling off into my chain and make me pâté on the pavement. My knees start to ache and even the incredible views can’t keep my mind off my body for very long. This stretch of Highway 17 between Wawa and Sault Ste. Marie is one of the most desolate parts of the entire circle tour, with minimal gas stations or rest stops. The ranger at the visitor center told me that many people who stop in are looking for something substantial to eat but all they really have is coffee and chips. I spot my first bottle of urine early on in the day and by mid afternoon I have counted five and that is only on my side of the highway. These gleaming yellow beacons serve as a way to measure the time and grinding kilometers as I groan up hills.


Toward the end of the afternoon my sunshine delusions have been knocked down a few pegs by the climbs and I’m just pushing myself forward, hoping to get to somewhere suitable to camp. I pull off on a rough road and soon my tires are inches deep in sand and I pull my bike towards the beach, hoping to find a spot with a bit of privacy where I can set my tent but the entire area is thick with irritating flies, which is odd because I’ve barely dealt with bugs the entire trip. I try to lean my bike up against the only trees I can find, scrawny things but as soon as I let go of the handlebars it topples over and my panniers fling off and I’m knocking sand everywhere and my mood has boiled over to straight fussy. I decide to continue on down the road, hoping that my knees will behave long enough so I can make it to Pancake Bay, which has a provincial campground. I have minimal hopes for this campground, as the few campgrounds I’ve visited in Ontario were already closed and seemed to offer only the most basic services. Nevertheless, I keep pushing into my pedals and my knees screamed with pain and slow exhausted tears rolled down my cheeks. Finally, finally, I arrive to the Pancake Bay campground and head to the front office to pay for a campsite, which at this point I considered a novelty after so many nights of stealth camping. At the front desk, the ranger pulls out a map to indicate what campsites are available and it is enormous. She begins to rattle off information about the showers and coin operated laundry and I’m dizzy just thinking about such luxuries. I use my typical strategy and choose a site within limping distance of the bathrooms, as I don’t want to put my body through any more work once I dismount the bike. I slow cruise to the beach and the place is packed! There are RVs brimming with life, of slow playing radios and BBQ grills! A few folks wave as I bike by!


view from the campsite

Each campsite I had their own beach access trail and my site was dry and clean and covered with soft pine needles. I unpack all of my panniers onto the picnic table, thrilled about being able to properly lay out all my gear and re-organize everything that I have been hastily packing during wet weather the last few days. I put a pot of water on to boil and head over to the beach for a few minutes to sink into the view before sunset.


While standing on the beach I notice a couple further down, walking a fluffy golden retriever. They walk toward me with big smiles and I immediately tilt my body downward towards the dog and make cute noises. After a few seconds I remember the other humans and wave and smile and then slowly start to walk to my campsite. Minutes later as I’m stirring a pot of cheesy noodles and chewing the last hunks of the dreaded plastic brie, the couple comes up next to my table. “I see you like my dog, Charlie” the man voice is loud but cheerful, “here, watch him for a bit while we go for a walk.” He thrusts the leash into my lap as the dog sits next to me and begins to lean on my knees. Charlie isn’t a young pup, he has a few years that show in his graying muzzle but his coat is thick and curly and I stroke him gently while murmuring words onto the top of his head. He listened patiently, mostly concerned about the return of his owners, as I asked him questions and poured out silly love. The great thing about dogs is that unlike humans they do not question your affections or goofy emotions but instead have a built in hunger for these precious things and gobble them up. I feel such an enormous sense of relief, to unburden all of these stopped up emotions that I’ve carried for so many kilometers. And Charlie responded with a few sweeping tail wags, brushing the dirt onto my ankles. The couple returns and introduces themselves as Mike and Diane and invite me to their campsite later for some wine and cheese. I’m reluctant to accept because I’m still dusty and don’t know if I’ll have energy once the sun goes down, but they are insistent. And Charlie wags his tail. Oh, how can I resist that charmer! I promise to see them later.


i am a poodle

I quickly polish off the cheesy noodles and then start in on the snarls in my hair, dragging my comb through 4 days of dirt and tangles. My bleach blond frays into a giant poof and I march to the showers to scrub off the grub layer. 20 minutes later and I’m Dr. Bronner’s (ALL ONE) fresh and in my cleanest clothes and the sun is dipping into the lake as I start to walk to Diane and Jack’s campsite. As I pass next to an RV with a bright blue light up maple leaf hanging from their retractable awning, a stout man calls out to me and recognizes me as the biker who rolled through earlier. I give him my five minute speech about the bike tour and he responds with a tale of a moose as big as a car! that he and his wife had spotted earlier and that he is a butcher by trade and is able to butcher them and did you know this is their first vacation in a long time, there was an illness but now they are here and they are grateful. His wife pops up from near the picnic table and both of them offer me shots of whiskey and cans of beer but I tell them that I’ve made other plans. I finally start back on the dark trail, skip in my step as I feel like the goddamn belle of the ball! Compared to awkward conversations in small town gas stations, this kindness is so heartwarming.

I walk for a few minutes and squint into the dark but soon find a roaring camp fire and a familiar dog. Diane and Mike warmly welcome me and pour a large plastic glass of boxed red wine and give me hunks of Costco white cheddar and banana chocolate chip muffins and my lap is overloaded with treats. Charlie is plunk down right next to me and Mike jokes about his disloyal dog and how he’ll latch on to any woman in the room. Really though, he’s just a sweetie and he’s wedged into the only spot between my chair and the fire pit. Soon I see a bit of orange flame and the silly pooch’s tail has caught fire. I gently stomp it out and shove him to a spot farther away from the heat. Mike and Diane are both freshly retired and from the Toronto area and talk to me about Trump (an American shame), the back story to Justin Trudeau (his mom was a wild child who danced at Studio 54 on the eve of elections), the perils of canned beef stew (not made for the human digestive system) and their international adventures and recent romance (they make glowing teenage eyes at each other all night). The conversation lingered late into the night and I sipped wine and talked about my travels and as my yawns grew deep, the whole crew walked me back to my campsite with tipsy giggles and flickering flashlights. I’m asleep as soon as I zip the tent closed.


SONG OF THE DAY: “Heart of Gold” by Neil Young