I awake a bit stiff from yesterday’s steep hills and wine remedy. Most nights I’m slid in the sleeping bag a few chirps after sunset so late night social hour threw off my internal clock. It took me a few moments to shake off my groggy and roll out onto the dew damp ground and hike myself towards the bathroom. Some chugs of fresh water and I’m back on autopilot, stuffing panniers with gear and sipping lukewarm instant coffee and chewing on fistfulls of gummies. I promised Mike and Diane and Charlie the Dog that I would visit them for breakfast before I roll out and I start to pedal in their direction when a man walking a dog flags me down and asks me about my traveling circus and it turns out that he is from St. Paul, Minnesota and his adult children live in South Minneapolis, just a few blocks away from where I am permanently stationed. Like all retirees who see the face of his own kids reflected in my patchy sunburn, he wishes me safety and I try to smile at him and assure him that I know what I’m doing. I let that beautiful lie push me on towards breakfast.
I arrive at the RV and my hosts are joyful and give me a prime spot in their kitchen booth and provide me with a kerig cappuccino filled with milk and sugar and the smell of cooking bacon eases through my nose and Carly Rae Jepsen pops on the radio. They pile a massive plate of bacon and potatoes and banana chocolate chip muffins and I appreciate the bounty of their kitchen but mostly their company. I was so lacking in human warmth and their hospitality gave me a relief from the constant grind of self propulsion, being my own mother/coach/barista/best friend. All those internal characters needed a bit of a rest and it was lovely to have Diane and Mike take the wheel. I finally had to get on my bike and get some miles and both of them tried to stuff as much food into my panniers as I would let them. Mike paused for a moment, went into the RV then came back and placed a Coors Light solemnly in my right hand. “For when you get to the top of the second hill”, he said with a wink. I give them both massive hugs, stoop down for one last old dog smooch from Charlie and ride off feeling full.
The area around Pancake Bay has a few key tourist stops and I pull into the massive gas station/general store/knickknack emporium which has a parking lot flooded with cars. I turn on my cell phone and stumble around the parking lot with my arm in morse code right angles and bends, trying to find a strong enough wifi pulse so I can send messages to my parents/verify the address for tonight’s host. Soon I attract attention and a couple with fit bodies and salt and pepper hair cut into fashionable shapes start talking to me and ask details of my trip. One disappears for a few moments and she returns with a classic cookie tin and she offers me handfuls of cookies, which she says are made from lots of butter and freshly ground walnuts “very nutritious!”. He asks me if I have been riding on Highway 61 and 17 and when I nod he looks at me with admiration and thrusts out his hand “I SHAKE YOUR HAND!”. Any cyclist who has traveled those roads for even small distances know that they test your sanity. They wander off and I stay at my bike, tapping out messages to folks at home and a few minutes later the couples swoops by in their car, I can see their bikes hitched on the back. The driver’s side window is rolled down and a tanned arm extends a perfect red apple. “You are the champion and win the apple.” I pluck the apple happily from his hand and his partner reaches over with the cookie tin again and both sets of eyes settle on my hot pink fanny pack. The driver grabs a plastic jar of cashews from the back seat then asks me to unzip the fanny pack and I lean my torso against the car as he fills its entirety with crunchy nuts, which settle among my MP3 player and sunglasses. This couple from Toronto has outfitted me with enough fatty snacks to last until the US border. They peacefully smile as I thank them and then cruise out of the parking lot onto their own adventure. My mind is reeling from the morning of lavish attention and ample snacks but I’m determined to get back on the road while my coffee and sugar buzz was still clipping through my system. I have two hills to conquer before Sault Saint Marie.
The first dozen kilometers demonstrate the beginning of the challenges of the day: a stubborn headwind and blazing sun, which is shocking considering it is late September. Since it is a Friday and the weather is good, Highway 17 is more heavily trafficked and the extra cars zooming doesn’t help the frustration with the headwind. Soon, the shoulder starts to disappear from a plump four feet across to a scant two, barely covering the width of my bike. With ever close vehicles, I arrive at the base of the first massive hill and it doesn’t seem that bad in comparison to the mountain climbs at the previous border or even the most northern section of Mother Lake. What makes it arduous is the heat and shrimpy shoulder and I try to hold onto the warm fuzzy feelings that padded my morning and focus on the kindness of all those lovely strangers instead of the brutal carelessness of those who barrel past in enormous metal boxes, mere inches away from my extremely fragile human body. I consider the Coors Light snug in my bag, knowing that I can’t dip out and lose hope on the first hill, I got another one to go. It is a terrible grind but I get to the crest of this long steep winding hill. Any improvement my knees felt from a night of human warmth and strong nutrition was wiped away within the first few hours.
The second hill appears on a stretch of highway that has expanded to three lanes in some sections and billboards advertising the wanton delights of Sault Saint Marie (fast food! boating supplies! chain hotels!) and I half expect to see at least one for Wall Drug. The traffic is fast and reckless, people pouring into town on a Friday afternoon after a long week, feet flooring gas pedals and most cars don’t move into the other lane which is free and some barely float over a bit. The geography of the hill reminds me of when you are small and learning downhill skiing for the first time and you are at the base of the mountain and trying to even imagine where the top may be. “THERE” the thoughts gurgle through a flopped stomach “I’M SUPPOSED TO GO UP THERE.”
It is on this hill that I have my closest call with instant splatification, a moment where I was genuinely surprised not to be a bloody pool on concrete. It is at this point that I sincerely doubt that I will make it to Sault St. Marie or ever see those stupid stars and stripes of the God Damn USA every again, but I promise myself that if I can see through the next 30 KM, with the trees as my witness, I will buy myself a shot of whiskey. The desperation tears mix with the sweat building underneath my cap, the bright sun was direct, and it felt like an August summer day, not the tail end of September and every quick cell phone photo I take is rainbow smeared by the bright light. I take breaks (lolz, breaks) from pumping my legs by walking my bike up the steepest sections, trying not to get pinned by my permanently wobbly pony. The worst part about these long sloping hills is that the top doesn’t even feel like an actual apex, just the end of suck. Even the mountain climbs in the northern part of the lake looked dinky in my sad camera phone. Alas, my calf muscles will never forget, they earned every inch of climb.
Soon the two-lane highway melted into four lane suburban streets lined with big box stores, industrial buildings and gas stations. I pulled into a gas station to charge some juice in my phone to route the rest of the way to the Warm Showers host and I was nervous leaning my bike outside, unlocked, among idling trucks that could easily swing my entire life into the cab in five minutes. But the need to release bladder and siphon some wifi were too great and I propped the beast next to a window, close to the door but not so close it would invite a casual thief to spot it and roll away. It is incredible the strange amount of overthink that goes into such a small decision. Although I have deeply started to understand the logic and positioning of personal camps of homeless people, near trafficked areas but not so close that folks (good or bad) become curious and investigate further and something that at least allows for some privacy. When all of your resources are so compact and vulnerable, it’s worth taking that extra minute to think of the Worst Possible Scenario. I rush inside, buy a sports drink and get the wifi password and then head back outside to my bay-buh and hover as close to the window as possible to net every scrap of internet as I pull up maps and route to tonight’s Warm Shower location, a bike shop that offers free camping in the back to anyone who rolls up on two wheels. The maps shows a breezy route that actually includes *gasp* BIKE LANES! Eager to get the fuck off the road and away from cars, I push out onto the street and it is only about a half mile more of the hulking four lane roads until I slide onto a bike path near a shiny new hospital complex. It seems like this path was built with one of those vague commitments to public health and recreation and although the ride is pleasant it isn’t particularly scenic and doesn’t appear to the humble tourist to be very useful for any sort of commuters. They are the ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ of bike paths, better than nuthin’, but at this point in my journey it feels like a square of 2 ply toilet paper after rest stop rough stuff.
Even with this treat of a trail, I’m still all sorts of relieved when I arrive at the door of the bike shop that looks like an outdoorsman lodge with a big wooden beams framing a side porch and a dirt pump track out front with kids flinging around muddy curves on BMX bikes. I lean my bike on the side and wander in to the front counter where a nice young man is standing and I tell him that I am their Warm Showers lodger. He smiles and tells me that he’ll give me a tour in a minute but would I like an espresso first? I nod weakly and he turns to the gleaming coffee machine behind him and pours me a perfect shot of espresso. I flop my wallet out of my bag but he tells me that these are free and to help myself to the donuts on the counter. I cannot even begin to express the raw emotion I felt for this kind gesture, after spending the morning staring down death and now free espresso and a chocolate donut? I’m trying to keep back tears of relief as he takes me on a tour of the shop and shows me the bathroom with a pristine shower stocked with shampoo bottles and soap and then we walk to the back which is this patch of trees and massive fire pit and piles of wooden pallets with some of them constructed into hobo thrones and bike ramps. It is straight from the imagination of any Lost Boy, a hideaway from blinking phone screens and itchy trouser responsibilities. I unload my bike and start to create a camp, scouting a perfect nook for my tent and set up all the sleeping basics before I get too comfortable and lose any momentum provided by the caffeine and sugar boost. As I start to dig through my panniers I notice a harsh smell of alcohol, the sort rubbed onto scrapped knees. I don’t think too much about it as I find the Coors Light in the bottom of the bag, lukewarm and shinning. I crack the beer and take sips as I take one of the few contented selfies of the entire trip, positioning myself in my vagrant splendor and surveying the camp, awash in smug dumb luck for such a perfect place to crash.
I start to unpack the other pannier when the alcohol smell overwhelms, and I start to feel heat on my fingertips as I pry each item out of the bag. The bottom of the bag is wet with a sort of liquid and one of the straps is absolutely soaked. I put the strap close to my face and sniff and I feel the spicy tickle my nose tip. The bear spray canister has been completely emptied and coated the bottom of my bag with incredibly potent hot sauce, strong enough to get a black bear to turn on his paws and stomp off. I remember back to Catherine’s Cove and unlatching the safety when I heard strange men shouting near my tent. Fuck. I pull everything out of the pannier and access the damage and fortunately, I only lost the one well soaked strap and everything else were things that could be thrown away, like a never used roll of duct tape. I wander up to the shop with my spicy bag and ask to use a sink to rinse it out and soon I’m elbow deep in sloshing Dr. Bronner peppermint suds and the minty tingle mixes with the slow sting of pepper spray. The bike shop around me begins to shut down for the day and kids ride off on their BMX bikes as the sound of cracked beers begins to chirp like crickets in a meadow. I rinse out the bag the best I can then pop a sit around the side of the shop and someone soon rolls an icy PBR in my direction. The shop employees start to wander outside and begin the bike shop banter that I’ve wasted many hours perfecting. I’m told of an easier, bicyclist friend route into Sault St. Marie that would have taken me around the massive hills (GAHHH), made to list the Most Famous Canadians (I make a Wayne’s World joke while simultaneously forgetting that Mike Meyers is THE most famous Canadian) and learned that C$10 is a useful boot for a punctured tube, since it is waterproof and worth very little. I mention a previous Australian boyfriend who opened beer cans with his teeth, of watching the Beyoncé spectacle in a crowded stadium and being invited to garden parties where everyone is dressed in white. Beers keep sliding in my direction and the tingle from the bear spray has begun to build and mix with the booze haze and male attention contact high. I try to avoid touching my face but soon a spot above my upper lip begins to burn and it spreads around my mouth until it feels as if I have licked clean a plate of hot wings. The tingle that started in my fingertips has now bled into my entire hands which are now close to numb. At this point most of the shop has faded home and the remaining employee is going to go eat some dinner with his bestie and invites me to come along and soak in the urban splendor that is Sault St. Marie. I quickly hop back to my tent to slide into my cute shorts, as I had been wearing my mud green nylon cargo shorts that are a $6.99 fashion horror (but dry quickly!). After I change, I skip back to the parking lot and heave myself into the backseat of a giant pickup truck and go on my first car ride in three weeks. The two dudes in the front discuss where we should go, considering the limited culinary options of this town and then it is decided to head off to a familiar bar. We arrive and are greeted by a table of mountain bikers, with sunburned noses and dusty limbs. We snag the table next to them and in my continued giddy hot sauce high, I notice that there are actually buffalo wings on the menu. I order six until I remember I BIKED 75 KM TODAY and then order 12 more and in a moment of delusion I order them Inferno hot, the tippy top of the scale, the blazing-est of the blaze. How spicy can Ontario really get? More beers are drank, I’m pounding down hot French fries by the handful and keep exchanging eyes with one of the younger dudes at the other table. The capsaicin pleasure waves crash over me every ten minutes or so and the hot spot spread from my mouth to random dots on my arms. “We need to get Lauren gloves so she stops touching herself!” one of the dudes shouts. The chicken wings arrive and I mow through the entire plate without a single winch and only a handful of sniffles. I finish off the meal with a shot of whiskey, the one I promised myself on the mile long hill and it is a long burn down my scorched throat. I have never been higher. My bliss is interrupted by an older, beer mouthed man from the other table, who wants to talk to me about Trump and American politics. “She’s really cute but she ain’t that bright” declares one of the dudes, a more untrue statement has never been uttered. I pound my fist on the table and declare that I’m not saying one goddamn word about politics or America or whatnot until another whiskey shot is place in front of me. Full stop. After a back and forth in which he realized I wasn’t not joking, I finally got a thimble sized glass of whiskey sat in front of me. I slugged it back, teeth punching sweet, and asked what the fuck it was. “Jack Daniel Honey” was the reply. He was about to start on his epic explanation about What is Wrong with The USA when I tell him that I am well versed in politics, as my undergraduate studies were in political science with a focus on international relations and oh yeah, I speak two other languages and just got done working at a law firm. I am not the ignorant backward blond girl you get to impress with your regurgitated reddit threads. I smart, but I tired and the hot sauce high is starting to dip. The man realizes his drunken folly and shuffles off as the bill is paid and we leave again in the pickup, my head against the window like a pet dog enjoying the view.
Truck dude drops us off in the front parking lot and we enter back into the bike shop where my bike and panniers were kept safe and sound. The stereo system is blaring as if there is some sort of ghost dance party. “I keep it on to scare away the mice” dude declares. Huh. I’m offered another tallboy and a coffee, as bike shop dude has to build up some wheels for a customer and will be up for a few more hours. I have nowhere to be and I am enjoying the human contact so I accept and start blathering about this squeaking problem with my bike. In seconds, dude has lifted bike into the stand, spun pedals, slapped grease and fixed the problem. While looking at the bike he says tells me that the reason I have knee problems is because of the flat pedals. Without clipping in, I’ll keep readjusting my feet throughout the day, which throws off the angles of my knees, causing injury and inflammation. Huh. I always thought that clip in shoes where for people riding around in circles in tight pants. And it’s true that I do keep wiggling on my seat all day. Welllllll shit. Too late at this point to try to change it up. We both sit down and I bust out some gummis and chat while he threads special ordered purple spokes through a purple hub, and I silently nod skyward to Prince. He tells me about his bike trip around the big lake (in 16 days! This must be a lie) and how Copper Harbor is fantastic and he tells me that I should take the extra few days and bike up there, reminding me that I probably won’t have an opportunity to do this again. I considered his words. I finally got sleepy after hours of inhaled testosterone, high octane hot sauce high, espressos and booze. I took my half drank tallboy and rambled out the back door to my cozy camp.
Hours later I am shaken awake from the deepest, vilest rumble from my guts. I have but minutes until all of the kingdom comes loose. I struggle to shimmy out of my sleeping bag in my narrow nylon tomb and the only shorts nearby are the cute tight plaid one and there is not way I could wiggle into them without risking it. I place my hands over my pubic triangle and prance run to the bathroom, remembering mentions of a security camera. I arrive just in time to empty my bowels of the most picante sludge. It seems that the Inferno was much more potent going out then coming in. I hobble back to my tent, bare assed adjacent to a Super Walmart parking lot for hopefully the only time in my life. In the morning, I will think this was all a dream.
DISTANCE RIDDEN: 75 KM
SONG OF THE DAY: “All Night” by Chance the Rapper