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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

DISTANCE RIDDEN: 80 KM

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

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soaked

DAY 18:

Intoxicated by the blood rushing mix of double doubles still thumping in my veins late into the night, the violent creaks of trees straining against the torque of strong wind and whipping leaves and the rush of rain above my head. These forces create a monstrosity in my head, a dark syrup of lust which I cannot recognize as anything but primal. Unable to define them as dreams but more as visions as they appear vivid behind my eyelids. I eventually find an edge which I grasp and pull myself towards the morning and the rain slows to a gentle patter and I cannot believe that those two trees didn’t snap in two. Tiny slugs are crawling on the mesh screen of my tent and when I open my mess kit they are inside there as well, stuck to the orange plastic of my cup and in the bottom of the rubber lined bag and I accept their dominance in this, their kingdom of wet. I spend a few minutes pickin’ and flickin’ ’em onto the slick grass and touch my socks that I had hung up to dry inside my tent the night before and they are just as waterlogged. Back on my feet they go, along with my damp rain jacket and cargo shorts, I’ve only a few items that are still dry and I can’t use them until the rain is over. I roll out around 9 am, Ontario becoming a Groundhog’s Day nightmare of murderous cars, sugary carbs and rain rain rain.

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Old Woman’s Bay?

The highway starts to dip towards the lake and I clench the handlebars through some winding curves as the rain mutates from a quiet mist to something I can feel pinging on my sleeves. I cinch tight my handlebar bag full of gummis and remind myself to keep drinking water, which seems silly when I am so wet. On the mountain sides the occasional trickle have now started to gush into miniature waterfalls and pocket of bright red leaves on trees seem to flash warning. The rain grows more ferocious with each kilometer and even after tightening each opening of my jacket, the wind find any spare centimeter and creeps in with a wet spray. The raindrops are thick on my glasses and I eventually zip them into my pocket so I’m blinking through the storm. None of my cheery songs or “gosh isn’t this awful!” faux optimism can combat this weather. After a few hours of struggle, I pull over to a picnic area and it is empty save for a pick up truck parked in one corner of the lot.

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kiosk with a view

I immediately take shelter in a solid wood kiosk that holds pamphlets about the park and features giant maps of the park under thick plastic on either end as well as a small shelf and collection box for fees. I begin to unpack my panniers to find dry clothing as I have started to shiver deep and I need to get warm fast. After pulling everything out I realize that my thick oatmeal colored sweater is nowhere to be found and I’m searching my brain for where I must have left it but it doesn’t matter. It was my warmest piece of clothing and now I’ll just have to make do with layering what I have. I grab my stove and start heating up water for some ramen and let my body adjust to rest, I’m still weary after spending the morning biking in brutal rain. I eat the ramen with more salami and it just makes me more hungry and the broth heat in my stomach reminds my limbs of how cold they really are. I start to shiver again and I know that I need to bring my body temperature up as soon as possible and consider breaking open my emergency blanket that I have stashed at the bottom of one of my panniers.

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cozy in cold concrete

I sprint the few feet to where my bike is leaned up to grab my sleeping bag and pad. I let the pad inflate as I drape my dripping wet gear from the shelf and collection box and then peel the wet layers off my body and change into my wool long sleeve shirt and pant which I usually reserve for bedtime. I seal up the pad, unfurl my sleeping bag and stuff myself inside, still shivering. After a few minutes of trying to remember tropical beaches and mentally push memories of humid Carnival days into my toes, a minivan rolls into the parking lot and it parks near the beach. A man gets out and wanders around for a few minutes and looks towards my makeshift hovel and eventually gets back into his van and then as he is leaving he idles near the kiosk and waves me over to his open window, waving a candy bar in one hand. “Here, I want you to have this. A day like this, you’ll need to keep your sugars up!” It is a generic slab of milk chocolate with almonds, something purchased for a high school band camp fundraiser. “I just got it, it isn’t old or anything” he affirms although I have zero concern about the chocolate quality.  I thank him and he has a Deep Concern face as he closes his window and slowly drives away.

As a sit snug up in my sleeping bag, more cars drive into the lot and again perform the same series of motions as the first visitor. Step out of car, wander around for fifteen minutes then back in their toasty warm vehicles, never once looking over in my direction. I can see a bit of the beach through the trees from the kiosk and it looks to be gorgeous. The rain sputters on and off and I consider getting back on my bike for a few more kilometers, especially since this isn’t a sanctioned camping area, but I have a chill to my very bone marrow and I imagine it would be much more irritating for park staff to have to deal with a hypothermic bike tourist than one who discreetly camps for one night. I heat up another pot of water for cheesy noodles, slowly feel warmth coming back to my body and waiting for the rain to completely stop so that I can set up my tent.

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i’m using my dress as a scarf

While I’m cooking my pot of cheesy noodles, two young dudes appear with a chocolate lab on a leash and head towards the parked pick up truck. One of them waves and approaches my squat in slow strides and starts chatting with me. He is wearing thick framed glasses and has long wavy brown hair and is the closest thing to the boys at home I’ve seen in a long while. I ask what the heck they are doing outside on a day like today and it turns out they are forestry workers, they get cash for each tree they measure so while I was out there feeling the weather’s fury on the road, they were clutching onto trunks deep in the woods. He asks where I am from and when I tell him I’m here from Minneapolis, he tells me that he likes to go skiing in Lutsen and I remember that for a north woods fella like him, Minneapolis is a giant metropolis. He also mentions that the year before he meet a woman on a unicycle about 30 km away from where I sit and that she had biked all the way there from Montreal. OH REALLY. Wellllllll, fuck. Just when I was feeling like a bad ass. I bet she scooted around on her unicycle while wearing a cute beret and singing jaunty songs or some nonsense like that. UNBELIEVABLE.  Anyways, I was really attempting a low key flirt. I don’t know if it was his soft hair or that thick cozy sweater that he had on, but he looked like….he was heading to somewhere dry and warm. Visions of a roaring fireplace and a bowl of soup warming my hands danced in my head. Oh take me with you, prince of the trees! Just as my charm started to set in, the other dude rambles over with the chocolate lab puppy, who had the signature lab walk of just a muddling pile of limbs tripping over one another and shoving his neck as far forward as possible to keep maximum tension on the leash. Lab puppies always seem to be on the verge of exploding when they spot A) new humans or B) ground level food scraps and I was scoring high in both categories. His owner was a gruff man with one of those beards that seems like it rambled out of the woods and attacked it’s owners face, only leaving a space for eyes out of mercy. There was a cigarette poking out of a small opening in the beard and a few sounds tumbled out, I think it was the name of the puppy.  He stayed a few paces away from the kiosk, as if I was a stray raccoon that he spotted in the backyard and didn’t want to get too close in case I attacked in a rabid frenzy. The flirty mood between me and the soft haired one died and they soon said their goodbyes, climbed into the truck and rolled off. Don’t say I didn’t try to snag a fella, Uncle Bob.

The rain had stopped so I ventured out from the kiosk and scouted a perfect spot to place my tent for the night. There was a grove of trees halfway between the parking lot and beach which featured a soft forest floor without any puddles and the overwhelming fresh air smell that seems to dive deep into the lungs. I quickly set up my tent and transfer all of my things from the kiosk to underneath the rain fly, although I leave behind the soggiest of my clothes to continue to dry out, although I’m a little nervous to keep them there as tourists roll through every thirty minutes and since each scrap of gear is precious, I can’t afford lose anything to someone with sticky fingers. But at this point I desperately need one or two pieces of clothes to get decently dry so that I can wear them tomorrow, so I push my anxiety aside and start exploring the beach.

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i look very much like my brother peter in this photo

Katherine Cove is absolutely gorgeous and was worth every ounce of stinging rain to get here.

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There is a small point structured with thick rock which can be accessed by a small path through the trees. As I’m wandering along, a scrap of violet appears on the forest floor and I cackle as I shove aside branches and stoop towards that lovely bit of color. It is my favorite fungi, the Cortinarius violaceuswhich I first found on that Superior hiking trip last fall.

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oh fer cute

I keep low and keep my eyes to the ground as I wander further off the path and I find so many fungi friends, I clap my hands with glee each time and take terrible cell phone photographs that can’t capture their beauty but I am so delighted by them.

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dunno what these are, the flaming red hots of the forest floor?
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crown coral, gahhhh so rad

The mycology fanatic in my life once described mushroom hunting as “land snorkeling” and it is one of the best ways to describe the slow hovering and admiring these gems. Oooh, and I spotted some more slime, but I got lost trying to loop back and find an extra goey patch so these little dribbles are all I could photograph.

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marmalade drops

I eventually stop fan girl-ing around all the mushrooms and head back towards the beach where there are a few picnic tables and bolted wooden benches facing the lake. Only one has a dedication.

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Damn. What a way to live a life. Is there any memorial better that a small metal plaque on a bench that faces the great Lake Superior? Why bother with a tombstone!

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I sit on the bench and watch the sun go down while I rip into the Good Samaritan’s chocolate bar, which is impossibly delicious with such rich chocolate and crunchy almonds. I save a chunk for breakfast and then wander to my tent to read while in my sleeping bag, headlamp pointed onto the page. Snug in my bag when I hear a truck pull up and hefty male voices spill out of the doors and then there are footsteps outside of my tent. “oh look, a bike!” a man declares as if he found a dollar on a barroom floor. THAT’S MINE, I respond in one tough breath and he huffs “okay, okay, you’re fine where you are.” I didn’t know I needed his permission, as he obviously is not a park ranger, but there ya go. I wait until the footsteps push of towards another direction and I wonder if my voice sounded female or if he could spot a scrap of hot pink or anything on my bike that could give away my identity. I unlatch the safety on my can of bear spray that I keep next to my knife near the door of the tent. I try to keep reading but my mind is racing. Eventually the men’s voices move towards the parking lot and darkness deepens around my tent and finally finally finally I hear them as they zoom off. The rain starts as a whisper as I exhale and shut my eyes.

DISTANCE RIDDEN: 40 km approximately

SONG OF THE DAY: “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly” from My Fair Lady—“warm face/warm hands/warm feet ooh wouldn’t it be loverly!”

maple donut

DAY 17:

Exhausted sleeps. When the body is still raging and trying to figure out how to rebuild and recover which churns out a sort of hot ache that it is difficult to sleep through, although sleep is vital. The pain in my knees appears now within an hour of waking, before I even get onto the bicycle and everything is stiff. The rain fell throughout the night with a few rumbles of thunder and it continued this morning. I rolled out of the tent in just my rain jacket and sneakers and grabbed the food bag and went back to the tent to make breakfast. I mixed up a “backwoods mocha” of instant coffee, chocolate protein powder and stale water and sliced a banana onto a pita and smeared it with discount peanut butter (which honestly tastes like 40% peanut/60% powdered sugar) and drizzled the whole mess with honey. I chewed and slurped while listening to Purple Rain and considering the rainy day ahead of me. I had created this cozy little spot and couldn’t I just enjoy it a little? Snug in my sleeping bag and not wanting to move beyond my pile of sweet snacks.

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But listening to “Darling Nikki” always makes me goofy and compared to yesterday’s mental dark clouds, I was feeling chipper. I slide on my big dorky cargo shorts ($5 thrift store purchase) because the nylon seems like it wouldn’t get too soggy and I gentle pack up my gear, trying to keep the few dry items away from the wet. My socks from the day before were still soggy after hanging them in the mesh pouch above my head, but I put them on anyways. With only three pairs to work with, I want to make sure I always had some fresh ones.

Before i leave I need to empty my bowels without the blessed convenience of a toilet. I grab my plastic trowel, dig a small pit and squat uncomfortably. The very second that dark matter came from my body, a high pitched panicked SQUEEEEEE echoed throughout the forest. Oh dear god. I am shitting in some squirrel’s living room, in the center of the rug, by the way she is screeching. I finish quickly and squirrel noise stops the second I do and I toss dirt over my shame and continue to carry extreme anxiety regarding DIY pit toilets.  Sometimes the animal kingdom will directly remind you how rude humans are, stomping around and shitting where they please.

By 10 am I am on the road and cranking out miles to stinging rain. My heart felt lighter than yesterday and I just started laughing at the rain, at the absurdity of things not going my way, the deep pain in my knees that were turning ruddy with the cold wet weather. I decided to whip out my cell phone and record a little video of me singing a silly tune as the winds blew strong. I couldn’t grump my way through an entire day in the rain, so I’d have to embrace a saccharine cheerfulness, even as I cinched the wrists of my rain jacket and tightened the flapping hood as nature tends to be a bit sadistic and will blow harder if you seem defiant. I’m excited to get to Wawa, as it appears on my map to the largest town until I hit the border and I just want to shovel in as much terrible fast food as possible and hopefully find a hand drier so that I could un-soggy myself. I’m excited to get to Wawa, as it appears on my map to the largest town until I hit the border and I just want to shovel in as much terrible fast food as possible and hopefully find a hand drier so that I could un-soggy myself.  I roll into the welcoming center, which is marked by an oversized statue of the Great Sky Carp, which is the namesake of Wawa, which is apparently the indigenous name of the Canadian Goose. Is the Canadian Goose just called a Goose while in Canada? I never asked.

I look around for someone to take my picture with this monstrosity and I spot a middle aged couple walking around all the informative signs. I limp up to them with my loaded bike and ask if they’d mind snapping a few smart phone shots. Imagine the sad soggy puppy that I must have looked with wet feet and a silly hat. They agree in an instant and introduce themselves as Anita and Uncle Bob from Illinois, retirees traveling around the Great Lakes in a rented RV. They are wonderfully cheerful and Uncle Bob struggles with his iphone before passing it off to Anita, who is the more tech savvy of the duo. Giggles echo across the parking lot as I pose with the Big Dumb Bird.

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note the deep fashion of the cargo shorts

I joke about my dreams of handsome Justin Trudeau jumping out of the woods (he was spotted in cave a few weeks before) and gush about his dreamy figure and Uncle Bob starts in “oh, he is reminds of me of Patrick”. Whose Patrick? “That handsome guy….Matthew something.” Matthew Mcconaughey? “Yeah, that one! I’m not allowed to talk when he comes on the TV. I call him Patrick. He looks like a Patrick.” Woof. Yes he does. He is one of my favorite Patricks, with those cheekbones.  Uncle Bob jokes that I  might find a hubby out here on the road “ya never know”. Exhibit A, Bob, look at those cargo shorts. Ain’t nothing happening with those cargo shorts. Anita gives me a big hug, even though I smell like a mix of urinal cake and wet dog and it was the first bit of human touch I received since leaving Duluth two weeks prior and I almost burst into tears. Uncle Bob tries to give me cash for a nice meal because he is an uncle to his core and I refuse because I am stubborn and I give them the name of this very blog so that they won’t worry if I get munched down by bears or to find out if I find a Patrick of my very own. My whole body shook as we all giggled together in the rainy mist and it was the warmest I had felt in days. I waved as I biked away, brimming with gratitude for my minutes with these two goofballs.

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Wawa was the not the buzzing hub that I had hoped it would be. I roll through the main drag which is dotted with FOR SALE signs and hotels hinting of 60s glamour showing decay. I discreetly take a few photographs, it seems exploitative to find charm in economic abandonment. The decline in tourism in these areas is devastating and I imagine the Big Bird Inn glowing with a fresh coat of pink paint, cars filled with young families and dreamy honeymooners, it’s glory days.

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I search for the ubiquitous Ontario truck stop, dreaming of slabs of French toast but I arrive quickly to the edge of town and have to turn around, recognizing that I will be calorie loading at Tim Horton’s. Without cell phone signal, I am dependent on free flowing wi-fi for communication with worried loved ones at home, so even if there were mom and pop restaurants available, I’m would be reluctant to stop there as I cannot miss an opportunity to re-charge my cell phone and message my dad that, yes, I am still alive.

Tim Horton’s parking lot is packed and I scootch between massive pick ups and lean my bike up against the large windows so that I can sit comfortably inside and keep an eye on it. I order a large double double coffee, chicken sandwich, two maple donuts and an old fashioned donut. I chug the coffee while a table of elders gossip in French a few feet away. I speak two other Romance languages which gives my ear some grace when listening to French and I can understand snippets and the lush tones remind me of Brazilian family reunions I attended long ago, a novice student sitting and listening and learning what I could. After polishing off all the simple carbs, I limp up to the counter to order a second double double and to ask the teen staff to fill all of my grimey water bottles and pouches. They only slightly scrunch up their noses as they handle all of my road dirt caked gear but they seem concerned about the amount of coffee I’ve consumed in a short amount of time. I imagine in my caffeine haze that I must seem like a swashbuckling pirate to these young lads, new to the ways of the world, but in reality I am an odd woman in shorts three sizes too big, dripping rain water onto their floor. When I get back to my seat to enjoy the last three sips of coffee, an old man approaches and chuckles at my soggy state and tells me that the rain is supposed to be leaving soon. I stopped reading weather reports around day 5, knowing that old men will always tell you everything you do not want to know about the current wind gusts and looming clouds and besides, no one can predict the whims of mighty Superior. I reluctantly get back on my bike, away from the warm and dry of the Tim Horton’s but first I stop into a cheesy general store a few blocks away. It features another Big Dumb Bird statue out front and that hokey log cabin rustic look that denotes that trinkets are afoot. But once I am inside I realize I have hit the tourist jackpot, as they have an entire section of barrels filled with an assortment of gummi candies that you can purchase by the pound. I almost fall to my knees with glee. There are gummi frogs and gummi sharks and gummi dinosaurs and cute red and black berries and fuzzy peaches and it takes every ounce of willpower to not immediately start stuffing everything into my cheeks. I fill a flimsy plastic bag with each of God’s creatures and like Noah who has survived the great flood, I take my gummi menagerie to the register, pay an absurd amount of money then carefully pack the stash into my panniers. Corn syrup gold. I leave Wawa with cautious optimism.

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how my heart soars

I forgot to mention that Wawa is where the road bends back towards the lake, which is the first glimpse I have seen of her since two days prior. I imagine this may have contributed to the dark feelings of the last few days as she has been my anchor and a calm presence as I grind through the miles, as well as a very physical remind that I am not lost.  There is a stretch of construction outside of Wawa, but instead of the typical bone rattling minescule shoulder shared with irritated drivers, this time I am treated to a luxurious handful of miles where there are stripped barrels providing ample space for my slim bike and even though the rain begins to fall again I blow kisses at the hazard yellow workers who are directing traffic and feel absolutely giddy for the short break from the zooming trucks. I arrive at Lake Superior Provincial Park, hoping to spot a sign for a campsite but nothing appears and as the sky grows dark I realize that I’ll have to find somewhere on my own.

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I find a pull over spot off the roadside and it has just a muddy sign and a set of portable toilets and a lone jeep parked. I figure it is a put-in spot for canoes and although I’m worried about the sort of nutjobs that canoe in this weather, I decide to settle in as the rain clouds keep getting fatter. The whole gravel lot is mostly flooded and the only dry patch is uncomfortably close to the shitters, so I choose the second best site which is a tiny space under two young trees, locked together and squeaking and bending with each wind gust. Not ideal but better then laying my head into a puddle. I set up my tent just in time before the storm hits and all my panniers are snug inside the rain fly and we are sealed shut in our nylon nest. I chew chunks of cold salami and a half brown avocado, wishing for garlic salt or chili lime spices. A slurry of chocolate protein powder completes the meal and I pull off my wet socks to reveal pruney toes that sting when touched by the cool air. I pull on my pair of thick fuzzy socks which pulses an indescribable pleasure through my body. Stuffed in deep into my sleeping bag, I flick on my headlamp and read a few pages of James Baldwin as the trees above my head creak harder and I try to push out of my head the image of a broken branch splitting my tent in two.

DISTANCE RIDDEN: 55 km

SONG OF THE DAY: “Space Oddity” by David Bowie

HAPPY PLACE: the counter at Caffetto with a large cup of strong black coffee and friendly faces brushing up and saying hi every few minutes as I scribble in my notebook.

fear eats the soul

DAY 16:

I set the cell phone to alarm at 7 am but I quickly hit snooze the second it starts to bleat at me. Ambition seems like a bit of a joke in a cheap motel room in the middle of nowhere. Around 8 am I hear a scratching noise followed by the metallic jangle of the door locks being bungled with and my limbs pumped with primate fear as my brain struggled to shake off sleep. The door cracks open with a thud as it hits the brass chain latch and I shout non words as the maid mumbles and closes the door again. Well, I guess I’m fucking awake now. I fumble with the mini drip coffee maker, as i’ve been spoiled by the lil cup cartridge systems in other hotels. I drink two cups of the chocolate protein mix, the second cup just being a slurry of coffee and protein powder for a filthy mocha. I’m midway through packing my panniers around 9:30 am when I hear the sounds of keys in the door again and I yelp so that she leaves me alone. Check out time was 11 am and I can’t imagine there is an overwhelming demand of new travellers that will want this dingy room by noon sharp. So glad I spent the cash to feel safe and secure in a locked room only to have it constantly busted open unannounced by a zealous cleaning lady. I scootch a chair next to the door and take a shower while pop songs play loudly through my cell phone. Since wifi is rare luxury, I don’t get to listen to any streaming music while on the bike, just the 6 albums on a battery powered mini MP3 swiped from my mom, so listening to Ariana Grande is like an audio slice of icing thick vanilla cake. I finish another cup of protein powder and chomp down a bruised banana before rolling out after 10 am. I stop at the giant Winnie the Pooh statue for a some photos ops with bikey because WHEN IN CANADA.

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Here is a plaque that clarifies the whole silly old bear story.

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Or you can read a more fleshed out version of the tale here, but it seems that White River has been a bit of an underwhelming outpost since railroad days, as the journal entry from Harry Colebourn indicates: “August 24, 1914 Left Port Arthur 7AM. In train all day. Bought bear $20”. I felt no need to linger but I did swoop by the gas station before rolling out hoping to find something like a nut roll or two to throw into my bag but the store was half empty like the gas station in Marathon and I bought an orange juice and some sort of cereal bar and chatted about the weather with the cashier, who warned of coming rain. I kept forgetting about the luxury of weather reports, as for the most part I just assumed it was going to rain and was pleasantly surprised when it didn’t so it was odd the idea of “knowing” what weather was heading my way. Huh. Looks like rain, eh?

Usually the first hour or so clips along quickly, riding a small coffee high and delusional optimism. But I don’t know if it was the knowledge of impending storms or if the caffeine just didn’t do it for me anymore or that slight incline leaving White River but I felt so gloomy. It felt like 3 pm already and every close truck past was felt two layers deep, as if I had forgot to slide on my skin that morning. I only spend about an hour on the road before I pull off onto a picnic spot next to a muddy river to decompress and eat something. I lean my bike against a picnic table and go wander next to the river and I spotted a pretty cluster of purple wildflowers (thx P) and just kicked the grass and felt glum. I made a sandwich with a perfect avocado and a big hunk of the brie that I bought two days before and had been in the perfect petri dish that is a sun warmed pannier and yet it did not ooze. Seriously, look at this photo. ZERO OOZE. This was the Kraft singles of Brie. A shame to the Brie name. The entire Brie family. Come on, Canada, I know that these newfangled food trends can be intimidating, but if I buy a discount wheel of triple cream brie, I want it to be softer than a pencil eraser. 

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shame

Oh, and here that weird packaging from the discount store. Seriously, so Repo Man

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I’m sitting at this bench, trying to finish the bland pita sandwich and shoveling in raisins, just marinating in my sadness when another car rolls up. I wince at the thought of human interaction and hope I can puzzle piece myself together enough so I don’t snarl at the strangers. An affable middle aged couple wander towards me and ask about the bike and they tell me that they are on a circle tour as well, just via four wheels and going in the opposite direction. They warn me of a coming stretch of hilly terrain (wait, didn’t I just get through the mountains?) and seem mildly concerned about my well being, which was most likely a result of my exceptionally dour mood. They tell me of their son who is my age that is also an adventurer and that they got him a GPS tracker that they use for when he goes rambling in the backwoods and there is a website that you can pull up and see where the tracker is on a map. It seems like a swell idea but I barely endured the idea of my parents knowing where I was at all time when I was a child and as a 31 year old woman I’d rather get eaten by a bear and have my teeth collected by some backwater sheriff for identification instead of being constantly pinged by a satellite. I’m trying to keep the conversation light but my bones are still rattled by quick passing semis and I’m trying to net up my emotions but I am so scared of being murdered by an oncoming truck. Whatever cushion my optimism provided me at the beginning of my time in Canada was obliterated by hours pedaling on 20 inch shoulders and I haven’t talked to anyone who has actively listened to me since that gas station in Marathon and I process feelings outwards so this poor couple is stuck witnessing this pathetic sunburnt me trying to find optimism in a spew of words. They are kind. I give them the address of my website so they can check up on me and I’m left to my emotions, which are now tinged with shame for burdening others with my feelings. I slowly make my way back to the bike and pedal off again on the Highway of Existential Doom.

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another selfie which means i was upset

I think about this TV show I watched a few years ago where the eternally handsome Ewan McGregor and his childhood buddy ride around the world on motorcycles. During a stretch of their trip, Ewan is struck by a depressive state and he talks into his helmet camera about how miserable and dark he feels even though he is on a fantastic adventure with his friend. I’m so grateful that the producers decided to keep that clip in the show, because now as I’m stuck in the mental mud, I have something outside myself to reflect on and that I’m not just being petulant but actually just experiencing a storm of my mental illness. Like a solar flare but for deep dark thoughts. The problem is that although depression is located in the mind, it also has very real effects on the body and I am slow moving.

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another quaint alpine lake

A few more kilometers in and on the other side of the highway are two riders, a twin vision in highlighter yellow. In two blinks they cross the highway and are in front of me, kind and with lightly accented speech. I take them to be Nordic, as they spoke with the same musical upturn and directness as my Norwegian friend Morton. They were incredibly polite although I was still tight jawed from my grinding sadness and a bit off put by their matching un-scuffed rain gear and panniers. It seemed as if they had a thick hazard yellow condom stretched over each body. IMPERVIOUS flashed over their heads. The two has started in Toronto and looped to Niagara Falls and were now heading North to catch a train across the bleak territories to Vancouver. We talk about the bareness of the small towns and the death wish traffic of Trans Canadian Highway 17. I’m still deep in the Eeyore woe and trying to seem upbeat to this well-prepared couple is difficult but we all manage ten minutes of polite conversation before pushing off into opposite directions.

Clouds are building as I arrive at the gates of Obatanga Provincial Park and although the kernel of hope that resides in my belly button would like to believe that there might be a campground or two, my experience with Ontario parks has taught me otherwise.  It is a long hour rolling through the park and slowly realizing that I would need to create my own camp tonight. I scanned the sides of the highway, which were mountainous and didn’t offer many flat spaces that weren’t also thick with long grasses and cattails, which signaled hidden swampy patches. The collection of NIGHT DANGER signs with the screaming moose didn’t help put me at ease, because my biggest concern was accidentally parking my stuff in a moose’s nighttime stroll path. Or anywhere near soon-to-be hibernating bears. I eventually found a spot that seemed to have a natural opening and pulled my bike through the trees into a petite clearing, just enough to comfortably fit my tent without resting my ankles on a root. I can still spy the highway, which I tell myself will keep the big animals away, as I’m sure they hate the truck rumbling as much as I do.

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subtle.

20 paces away from the tiny triangle where I’ll set my tent, over and under dead logs and branches, is a 4 ft circle clearing and I balance my tiny stove and pot on soft ground and set the water to boil for my daily ramen. While the stove hisses I quickly set up my tent, just in case the rolling clouds drop rain suddenly. I flip inside out the orange bag filled with dirty shorts and the soft grey fleece lining is now outside and ready to offer lump support to my tired head. Blue bag of batteries, power cords and random electronic flotsam sits at my head, next to the grimy ziplock that holds folds of cash, a few pens, multiple IDs, random scraps of notes, my gold printed notebook and the torn paperback “Go Tell It On the Mountain.” The lime green bag used to hold my extra pair of shoes, a grungy pair of slip ons that we already destroyed by river hikes, big city concrete walks and cheap beer spills, which I threw away at some point because I was just sick of packing them over and over. My pannier full of non-stinky items is tucked close and I angle it so that I can access the wet wipes and cocoa butter stick for my *intimate* end-of-day cleansing of the sores. Bear spray and knife tucked between sleeping bag and mesh door, not a practical mode of defense but it is an important lie so that I get some sleep. All these parts together make a home. Not bad for a few square yards of waterproof fabric and bendy metal sticks.

I walk back to the kitchen and watch the familiar foam pulse when I add the chicken seasoning packet to the rolling water and then add curry powder, my chili blend, noodles and hunk of discount salami, which has distinct plastic tones but seems more realistic than the brie I ate earlier. Once the noodles are soft I smoosh an avocado into the pot and start to stuff it into my face as I grip onto the pot and wander around. The smells of the forest are overwhelming, of that damp sort of decay that makes the air into atmosphere, gives it a thickness like city smog but with a cool hand. I spy a few aluminum cans near a small clearing, the remnants of a long forgot fire pit and before I can even seriously worry if this is a recent hobo camp. I notice that the cans are from the 70s, before the tabs and back when you had to stab a sipping triangle into the metal with an opener. I wander back towards my tent and instinctively crouch when I get near this decaying birch tree.

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neon orange forest floor realness

ORANGE SLIME. Oh gosh, I love a good slime. I had hiked a section of the Superior Trail the year before with boyfriend-of-sorts and he was deeply into fungi. Every fifteen minutes he was rambling off the trail to sniff through old trees and pointing at all the oddities spouting out of the ground. It was incredibly charming to me and I would flip through the mushroom guide as we would sip gritty coffee next to cool rivers and I became smitten with pretzel slime and learned to identify a few specimens. The habit has stuck and seriously, date one person obsessed with mycology and you will spend the rest of your life squat walking through damp clearings and poking dead tree trunks. It is a glorious burden. I creep in close and coo “coooooool” while snapping a few photos. I wish I had the pocket guide on me for more dorky facts, but the most I could do was just appreciate its gooey florescent beauty.  I slurped the last bits from the pot and wandered back towards my tent. I pack up the food items into a waterproof stuff sack and find that there are no sturdy branches so I’m resigning yet again to just finding a hidey place away from my tent to stuff it into, some place that might be tricky for a creature with claws? I am RECKLESS. I find a spot nearby the aluminum cans and hope for the best, I shake my hands in the air and ask the bears to leave me be, that I am quite sore and that one day I will avenge the capture of their beloved Pooh.

I turn to head back and look at my little set up in the woods and instantly I see the entire thing with 9 year old eyes.  I remember reading Julie of the Wolves and Island of the Blue Dolphins while snug in between tree branches and dreaming of the day where I could wander off with a pack and a knife and be left alone.

I have finally run away from home. Two pats on my full belly and I unzip the tent and flop in just as the first few rain drops touched my shoulders.

DISTANCE RIDDEN: 51 km

SONG OF THE DAY: “Life on Mars” covered by Seu Jorge

grind

DAY 15:

I woke up determined and appreciate my own impulse to pack seamlessly. I had visions of a real road warrior, with a slick routine, able to take down camp with two wrist flicks and a wink. I actually shoved everything into my panniers pretty quickly, but then again things are a lot easier when you’re not distracted by nibbles of banana or shoving a spoon of peanut butter into your face. My fast movements were motivated by visions of a greasy breakfast sandwich and another soothing dip into the wifi pool. I creep quietly through the resting RVs and roll the A&W. Although it is 9 am the same pulsing dance mix from the night before is shaking the house. There is a cluster of old men sipping coffee at one of the tables and I cannot imagine how their aged ears are taking this sound, which is borderline obnoxious. There is one woman at the front register and she is sprinting from drive thru window and coffee dispenser and back again. I order a sausage, egg and cheese sandwich, hash browns and large coffee with two creams and two sugars, since they apparently don’t trust the consumer to dress their own coffee. I take a seat and start sucking at the wifi teat and a few minutes later the counter lady brings me my breakfast. I will not hesitate to say that this breakfast sandwich is one of the best sandwiches I have ever eaten. Not too greasy but substantial enough to make me feel fueled. It was a soft pillow of grease that laid light in my mouth and slid down easy amongst sips of milky coffee. I was so enamored I took a photograph. 

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mylovemylovemylove

I used the wifi to listen to a grainy YouTube video that my dad sent me as encouragement, Uncle Tupelo’s cover of “Willin'”. I clutched onto my phone and peered into the grainy video and remembered the lyrics as something my dad would croon as we would drive down the highway on family vacations to some bit of wilderness. It is a trucker anthem, speaking of perceiving indifferent to weather and weary and the credo of “weed, whites and wine” although my journey was more “gummis, coffee and peanut butter”. It allowed me for a moment to feel as if my journey was epic. A road weary warrior instead of a woman with knotted hair in dirty clothing, clinging to a small machine. I sit and drink my coffee and at one point one of the old men wave to me and I’m almost ecstatic at the first stranger in Ontario who doesn’t seem to be actively avoiding my gaze. THINGS ARE GOING MY WAY. And that’s when I first hear the sounds. Beyoncé calls the beat in. Love on Top busts out over the speakers and it takes every ounce of my composure to not leap out of my seat and cheer. But goddamn do I sing along and throw around my shoulders while firmly planted into the plastic molded seat. If I was grasping for a good omen, this song was it. It always makes my heart leap in my chest and reminds me of a dance floor years ago when a friend of mine was freshly in love and I watched her sing and wiggle to the entire song with the widest, most genuine smile. Although I am weary, I start the day with a Beyoncé bounce, bless.

I head to the supermarket in the strip mall to fuel up my bike, as the next stretch of highway veers away from the lake and becomes increasingly desolate. The supermarket focuses on generic foods that are packaged in bright yellow with plain black script in both English and French, which reminds me of Repo Man (punk film classic). I’m still overwhelmed by supermarkets, as nothing really looks that appealing and I’m forced to consider the calorie density vs weight of each item. I’m perhaps one of the few people that is scanning calorie information for the fattiest foods. GIMMIE MORE. I grab some whole wheat pitas and head to the cheese counter where I see that there is a small wheel of brie for only $8 CAD and that shit is triple cream. I can shovel brie like a champ, so I add that to my basket along with another generic spicy salami. I wander to the dried fruit aisle when in the middle a toddler slows stamps her way down towards the end, clad in a moose printed sweater and snowflake boots with pom pom tassels and i’m overwhelmed with the cuteness. This trip has made me more enamored with children and dogs then usual. They don’t ask me questions about my damn bike. I wiggle my fingers in her direction and then sneak past and grab some raisins. Next is the candy aisle where I grab a bag of fuzzy peaches and one of Swedish berries, which are as much morale boosters as they are corn syrup rocket fuel. A giant bag of trail mix with apricots and hazelnuts (que chic!) gets plunked into the bag next and also a tub of generic gatorade powder. Finally, I head to the pharmacy section and grab a giant container of generic chocolate flavored soy protein powder. I had watched my friends gab on about their protein powders earlier that day on Facebook and realized that this would be an easy way to get in more calories (and quality ones) with minimal weight. I pay for all my stuff, which is relatively cheap considering it’s in Canadian, and head out to my bike that is leaning near the front doors. I crouch and dump things out of boxes and tubs and empty them into plastic bags that get stuffed deep into my panniers. The gummis fill up the feedbag next to my handlebars and I push off with a groan with my freshly laden bike.

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forest floor: soft n’ squishy

The first few hours are smooth as the highway bends away from the lake and deeper into the forest. The back-to-back fast food meals actually helped my body as it provided some much needed fats and salts and the traffic wasn’t too bad for most of the morning. By the time the coffee hit my bladder it was high noon and I was scanning for any sort of post that I could lean my bike against. It is hard to find a spot to pee that doesn’t require me lying my bike on the ground and having to hoist it back up again and reattach the panniers or try to push it down and over a small ditch and then back again once i’m done. I also scan for cattails or other signs of soggy ground, because more than once I’ve stepped off the gravel shoulder and a few feet later end up with soaked sneakers. This time I am able to lean my bike against a large bolder and I wander off and once I push past into the trees it is as if I have stumbled into a Bjork video. The ground was sponge soft with moss and pine needles and as I crouched to piss I was afraid of hitting a stray salamander with my stream. The highway noises were gone and everything was pulsing on it own rhythm. I am too quick to leave, mostly due to the deep hole that is burrowed near my right foot and looks like it could house an good sized mammal or that I could push my hand down into the forest floor and pull my torso through into Narnia. And also the quiet is too inviting. I have many kilometers to pedal before I arrive and this sort of a place beckons for hours sitting and feeling.

After my short vacation from the highway realities, the traffic starts to build again and my knees prickle with stress and I daydream of a weed cookie that could melt the ache. Or at least distract a little from the monotony. Each truck that zooms close by pulls my muscles tighter and I remember a story I stumbled upon during a  Facebook scroll the night before of a woman biking out to Seattle to be with her fiance and she was hit from behind on a highway in Montana, leaving her in a coma. I thought of her with every truck blast. It gave me no council. I tried to focus on chewing on handfuls of gummis, the mashing of my jaws giving an outlet to my frustration and rage, while also providing a corn syrup drip that calmed me some. Past quaint alpine lakes the shoulder becomes minuscule and I keep pushing my earbuds further in and hoping that the music will drown out my fears and I could mentally float back to a hammock in a small beach town. At one lake I stopped and lean my bike against a guard rail and decide to shake out my limbs to some samba. I played the music loud and let myself shimmy and roll in the few inches of space between the rail and the asphalt. I could trick my body into happiness! Yes! I would try to be more discreet whenever a truck would roll by but the minute they were gone I would go back to my little dance with the Novos Baianos chilling my anxiety. I can never be upset while i’m dancing to a samba song and it is a special sort of super power. I use music medicinally while riding, to distract from the pain and the fear.

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Back to the basics. Another set of distracted miles, deep in to sections of the highway where there isn’t much. The further I get away from Lake Superior I feel a sort of magnetic pull downward. It always offered me a comfort with it’s greatness. But now there is no physical reward for the truck creeps and I start to feel weary. I throw on the Purple Rain soundtrack in effort to distract my brain. I’d watched the film a half dozen times this year and I can always crawl back to my mental movie screen of Prince’s smokey eye winks and speaker humps and black lace guitar strokes to distract me for a while. The cars slowly disappear from the road and my strokes time with the rhythm and I can feel my muscles lengthen to each guitar wail. As Purple Rain plays and the last few minutes of shimmering cymbals and princely moans I notice a patch of bright color on the roadside up ahead. Considering my entire time riding in Canada I have been cruising the shoulders and seen not one bit of roadkill, a spare screw or coffee cup is the most eye distraction I could hope for. But there was a bundle of royal purple next to my front tire, a coil of discarded rope that must have flew off the back of a truck. It was in perfection condition. I steadied my bike and picked it up and lifted my eyes to the blue skies. The Sunday before the start of this foolhardy excursion, I had biked to Paisley Park with seven white roses and placed them next to the chain link fence around his estate, surrounded by water stained fan art and purple scarves and I asked for a little bit of guidance. I could never really believe in God or Jesus, but I’ve always been a devotee of Love and Beauty and Art and he was their champion. To hold in my hands a perfect purple rope on an empty road in the inland of Ontario made me a believer that my small request wasn’t forgotten. I tucked it securely into my pannier and continued onward with a small sense of safety.

White River has been a marked point on my map ever since Thunder Bay, when my host told me warm memories of the night she camped out at the foot of the Winnie the Pooh statue in the middle of town. Huh. The daylight was dimming and I was hoping to get there before it became too dark but each day my available hours of sunlight grew smaller as my pace slowed. It is a frustrating combination. The Thunder Bay host also told me that White River has an A&W so I was salivating for some succulent wifi and a double cheeseburger. I finally rolled in around 6 pm and saw that White River was nothing but three motels, two truck stops with adjacent restaurants. The A&W was attached to a gas station and placed my bike next to the window and walked inside. The entire dining room area was blocked off with plastic yellow safety tape and there was only two molded tables near the register. The register was being manned by a lanky limb-ed teenager, the first brown person I’ve seen for over a week. He has glasses and bounced and flung his hands and spoke quickly with a mild panic. Ah, this one is of my tribe. I order a double cheeseburger and onion rings and a root beer and ask about the wifi password. “THE WIFI IS DOWN”, he had no patience for the question. The dining room was quarantined, the wifi was down, oh, and the bathrooms were out of order as well!  I could only imagine what had happened that day in this odd little town. I grab a seat and wait for my food when enters from stage door left a small crew of teenagers, some of them at the tail end of their growth spurt and made even more intimidating through layers of sweatshirts and sport jackets. There was a conventionally pretty girl among them, clung to the side of one of the taller boys. This was some Saved by the Bell shit. The cashier continued his high strung bounce and took their orders and it seems like they tried to lay some light insults on him but like most nerds he’s accustomed to this shit and didn’t really give it any weight. I sat there eating my cheeseburger with dirty hands and waited like a mountain lion in a bush. I was a pirate now, burned by sun and taut from miles on the road and if they tried any funny business I would trounce those kids in two seconds. Fuck it. But soon the crowd grabbed their food and slunk away. I finally got my long awaited order of onion rings and poured two packets of salt on top. Still salty about the lack of wifi. The cashier grabbed a spray bottle and towel and began to wipe down the tables around me when again from stage left walked in a teenage girl and her mother. “APRIL” the vibrating teenage boy ratched up to another level of bounce. One of the other teenagers in the back started to walk to the register but he shouted “LET ME HELP HER” and leaped over the counter and flung his cleaning supplies to one corner and steadied himself behind the cash register. In my entire life I have never seen a creature who has pumped the puppy dog love vibes harder and stronger then this teenager. Not one ounce of chill or expected cool, just swooning over the fact that she ordered two bacon ranch crunch wraps and the other teenagers pop their heads out from the service window and she is a bit timid in front of her mom but familiar and I am falling for all of these outcasts. Who talk about the one time they went to Subway together and the inside jokes fly fast and thick and much like the Grinch my heart grew three sizes. APRIL. He keeps saying her name. APRIL. She gets a bag of free onion rings and as she leaves with her mom she calls the cashier “juice”. He has a nickname! I look towards the counter to see if the cashier has melted into a puddle. He has not and quite frankly I’m surprised, as my heart was swelling into my toes. Yet again, the stage door is flung open and in wanders a cowboy, with dusty boots and hat and the teenage staff recognizes him immediately and fetch him a chocolate milk. He won’t take soda with him combo, just chocolate milk. He speaks in a small bursts of a thick accent and is soon greeted by a red faced friend and they tangle themselves into a rough hug and Quebecois French. I’m hesitant to leave this bizarre sitcom stage but I need to find a place to fling my body for the new few hours and although the Winnie the Pooh statue is cute and well lit, the park is just a well manicured green patch between parking lots and there are too many long haul truckers in this tiny town for me to feel safe in a flimsy tent. When the choice is spending 80 bucks Canadian on a motel room or sleeping terrified of possible rapists unzipping my tent in the wee AM hours, I always chose the solid financial investment of a motel room. Sometimes nothing is more valuable than four sturdy walls and a door that locks. I try the motel across the street but the price was over $100 and I’m too cheap, so they direct me across the street. The lobby is a small room that is stuffed tight with heavy wooden cabinets and chairs and every sort of Winnie the Pooh nick knack that has been made in the past twenty years. A preteen girl is sitting at the reception desk and she finds me an open room with an eye roll. I grab the keys and roll my bike into the room, which is the shabbiest of the entire trip. Missing towels, broken lamp and a lone bar of soap. The roars of late night semis aren’t muffled much and I take a quick shower and apply a sticky cocoa butter paste to all of my sores. I slide my nude body cautiously into the sheets, hoping that they aren’t dirty but without much hope or care. I slowly stretch into a diagonal so that my hands can cradle my phone while plugged into the power cord and I tap out notes in between lukewarm sips of chocolate protein powder, the lumps getting caught on the dead skin of my lips.

DISTANCE RIDDEN: 91 km

SONG OF THE DAY: “Willin‘” as covered by Uncle Tupelo. Thanks Papa Haun!

 

 

the towel

DAY 14: 

Another puke scented morning in Terrace Bay and I repeat the previous morning’s limp across the park lot/plate of french toast and sausage and mugs of coffee. I take one last scalding hot shower and sip on kerig coffee as I blast pop bangers from my battered cell phone and re-organize all the gear that had been sprawled throughout the room in my decadent 48 hours of sloth. I inspect my body in the florescent light of the bathroom and note the bruised knots and rough patches. The tawny contrast between my arms and my pale hands looks like I am permanently gloved. My posture is square and my butt has a mighty-ness that can fight crime yet still I am puckered with constellations of cellulite. Somethings refuse to go away. The burst of music is helping my mood, which is still sour from poor nights of sleep and I force myself to dance around and loosen up and to feel some FUN. I almost forgot what FUN is. I finally roll out around 10:30 am and it isn’t long before I start into another stretch of climbs.

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My knees start to ache heavily by the second hour. I’m already antsy after spending a day just lounging in bed but my body doesn’t feel properly rested. Apparently, two microwave chicken pot pies wasn’t the recovery dinner my body desired and I feel as if I am pedaling through thick sludge.

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As the kilometers roll by my mind scrolls out a list of grievances. Against the tiny shoulders of Trans Canadian Highway 17. Against my ridiculous ambition and lack of planning. Every single argument from the last 24 months. Each foot of incline. Once every component of my frustrations was picked apart, I started to fantasize about an exit. I could rent a car in Marathon, Ontario! From there I could drive to the Apostle Islands and camp out in sweet luxury, listening to the mellow sounds of the lake lapping onto shore and drinking a cold beer and throwing my cell phone away for good. I imagined the miles zipping away with only the slight tap of my foot. What was all this pain for anyways? Was I learning anything? Can I really fail at something that is just made up? This isn’t a race. WHO CARES if I make it all the way around the lake! I’ve been biking for 14 days! What a stupid goal anyways. Just a giant loop.

I finally reach a gas station on the outskirts of Marathon around 3 pm and I’m determined to throw in this towel. A sign on the door of the gas station warned that the bathrooms were out of order. I go inside and the store is small with sparse shelves and low lit coolers and I search hard to find a snack. I start to chat with the clerk, a twenty something dude who seem less irritated by my presence than most I have met so far in Canada and I feel emboldened to ask him questions as I surf around the store. He shares with me the wi-fi password and I’m pacing through the only aisle and pick up a bag of “fully dressed” flavored chips. I rip the bag open and upon first chew figure out that “fully dressed” is a flavor combination of BBQ and salt n’ vinegar and it hit my tongue like a garbage fire. I passed them off to the clerk, who seemed equally unenthusiastic about them, and I started to work my way into a bag of good ol’ jalapeno n’ cheddar chips.

I inquire if there is anywhere to rent a car in Marathon and he gives me a vague answer about a garage that rents snowmobiles and I might be able to get a truck? Since I speak fluent Minnesotan, I translate this into a hard “no”. The exhaustion is making me bold. I ask him if there is any message board where people post rides, as at this point I’m considering hitching all the way to Sault St. Marie, which is the closest mid sized city and half American and would for sure have some budget car rental place I could find. He mumbles about the Marathon buy/sell page on Facebook and I ask him to add me to it but it turns out he’s not an admin so an admin has to approve it because apparently in a town of 3,000 people, they really got to keep the security tight on Facebook groups. At this point we almost have a back n’ forth going on, so I venture to ask him about Marathon and where I should go eat. He recommends the Chinese place but warns that it’s a bit expensive and he tries to stretch it to two meals by bringing home leftovers. I keep prying, asking about what happened to all of these town on the highway, why there are so many empty gas stations and abandoned motels. He tells me that Marathon was built around a paper mill, but that closed about 6 or 7 years ago and the only other industry is a gold mine with three sites, but now only one of the sites is still operational. Many people in the town have packed up and left, like his parents who ended up in a small town of 300 in Newfoundland. He tells me that he likes it where he is, that he knows the forests and it is comfortable for him.  It is one of those moments in which I become very aware that I am a privileged city slicker. I thank him for letting me pepper him with questions and pay for the chips and a ice cream sandwich which i cram into my face as I walk out the door.
I take a few deep breaths and realize I’ll just have to stay in Marathon tonight, whatever is available. I vaguely remembered some signage about a city managed campground, but since it is already late September and the provincial parks are shut down, I’m not particularly hopeful. 15 kilometers past the gas station I am on the main stretch of Marathon and there are a few restaurants and bait and RV stores and the main stretch is lined with bright flower boxes, each sponsored by a different business like the local Subway. Everything is neat but not really bustling. I roll to the bright and shinny A&W near the strip mall because I know that A&W have free wifi. Oh, sweet sweet wifi. There is a thumping dance track that is echoing throughout the restaurant and the few people inside are indifferent to the grooves. There is a burly construction worker and then an older woman, a bit crumpled, with a small child ahead of me in line, I expected more people considering it was a Friday night. The woman speaks in French with the child and is warm and outward seeming. Due to my deep grump, I’m not interested in exchanging with her and this makes me feel a bit guilty. She struggles to speak English at the register and the teenager manning the counter seems confused by her order. I maintain a large space between myself and her, whereas at home I would be one to assist any sort of communication error (I never forget what it’s like to stumble in a foreign tongue). I finally get up to the counter to place my order and notice a caddy stacked with plastic tubs of butter, jam and CHEEZ WHIZ. I still don’t fully understand this CHEEZ WHIZ thing. I order a double cheeseburger, fries and root beer, hoping that the caffeine doesn’t keep me awake as I’m hoping for sound sleep tonight. The mug is frosty and I drink deep. I grab a handful of salt packets and pour them over each bite. The food simply evaporates, it doesn’t even add weight to my stomach. My mood improves slightly but I’m reluctant to head back out to my bike and to lose the wifi and to be alone with my thoughts that just keep telling me to flee. Flee. I unfurl my map and stare hard at the lines snaking towards Sault St. Marie. I start to break down the days into chunks and I write them in my journal trying to give myself control and a bit of determination. Four more days til Sault St. Marie and American cell phone service. Eight more days through the UP and then I will be in Duluth again. Plotted out bites and a rough budget. It can be done. What’s four more days?
After ten minutes of rest I head back out to my bike and pedal towards the campground run by the city. I toss on my sweatshirt before I leave, the autumn chill has started to become noticeable. I expect the campground to be bare but when I arrive I am pleasantly surprised by the fleet of RVs that are there and I bike past them towards the more “rustic” grounds close to the lake and I secure the first spot, always close to the bathrooms. The lake is visible from my patch of green and I quickly make camp, tossing out the tent with a twitch of instinct and dissembling all of my gear. A young man walks by and I am aware in an instant that my outfit is eccentric and I must seem a loon. I remember that it is a weekend night and that probably he’s here to party with friends. Parties! Oh, I remember those. I am lazy and don’t assemble a bear bag, I just stuff all my edibles into the most sturdy pannier and leave it under the picnic table. I cram a handful of gummis into my mouth and roll into my tent, cushioned by my sleeping bag. I spend my time trying to sort through emotions and remember the person who started this journey 14 days ago. I wasn’t worried about a ride that probably wouldn’t manifest. I was asking my body if it could continue. As a pirate queen. My limbs were sore from the sun and the hills but I knew they were already transformed. When it grew dark I wandered out of my tent again, towards the bathroom. I studied myself for a long time in the mirror. I wasn’t romanticizing the suffering. Or maybe a little. It was just another night where I felt completely alone and overly proud of that fact. I was letting myself be my own Odysseus, telling myself it’s own legend and knowing that Greek heroes don’t just snag a ride home. The only way out is through.

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fanny pack glamour

DISTANCE RIDDEN: 81 km

SONG OF THE DAY: “Helpless” by Neil Young. Ya didn’t think I’d get through Canada without one Neil Young song, didya?

sloth

DAY 13:

I am totally knackered.

I cannot feel anything beyond the heaviness of my flesh and I search my mind for the edges of my limbs but all I can identify are the worn cotton sheets. My motivation is the kerig machine to the right of the door and around 8:30 am I stumble to it and smack down a cartridge and was welcomed with a hot water hiss. I pound down the first cup of coffee while gathering all the socks, shorts and t-shirts I had scrubbed out in the sink and hung to dry in the shower the night before. I am getting every damn penny out of this motel room, which I have made into a laundrette, bar and mental health center. Midway through the second cup of coffee I get a call from the front desk. I won’t need to switch to another room today, so I can relax and not have to bundle together all my hobo bundles before 11 am. Last night I decide to heed the advice of a friend and take a rest day (for my knees! i’m so tough I never need rest, ha ha!). My knees desperately needed a break and I couldn’t fool myself that I had the energy for anything besides eating crispy snacks while half reclined. I scrub another round of filthy gear and hanging it up before sliding on a sweater and heading out to find breakfast.

The second I stepped foot out the motel room door the smell purged every square millimeter of my nostrils. It was as if someone had placed a contained of spoiled seafood chowder into a paper bag with some fists full of hair and lit the entire thing on fire. I stumbled to the restaurant across the street and it took a few minutes for stank to dislodge from my nose. I sat down and barely glanced at the menu before ordering coffee, french toast and sausage. I glance around the dining room which has a giant map of Italy on the wall and painted wooden signs with slogans about wine and friends and a few Halloween decorations for good measure. The big screen TV is tuned to the weather channel and after watching for a few minutes I realize I hadn’t checked the weather report the entire trip.
Which is odd considering how relevant weather is to my every waking second, but I dunno if it was ever worth the bother. The french toast arrives and it is a Canadian beauty, stacked high and dusted with powdered sugar and it is egg whipped and light with all the edges crisp and a goddamn delight. I start to mow into it when I overhear the waitresses at their station trying to figure out their time cards. I instinctively start to call out “hey, don’t worry, I’ll fix it later” but then remembered I am an office manager no longer. I’m just a stranger with a sunburned nose struggling to open a tub of maple syrup. A tinge of loneliness. I soon pay my tab and swing by the motel head office to drop off the charger I had borrowed from Boss Lady the day before. The young woman who was cleaning the rooms offered me one of her plug-in USB adapters “I got a  lot of these at home”. MY LIFELINE MY CELL PHONE JUICE. I thanked her profusely, as I had planned an entire day of noodling on the internet and tapping out new blog posts. It’s hard to express gratitude sometimes, in the grandness for what it really is. I return to my motel room, plug in my phone with a silent cheer and roll into the rumpled bed  for another heavy sleep.

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I wake up around 2 pm without feeling rested and head to the grocery store, bracing myself yet again for the stench wave. I wander around in a daze and then buy 2 frozen chicken pot pies, a quart of raspberries, bunch of bananas, knob of fresh ginger, more ramen and a red pepper. I eyed a small section that featured Indian products, wondering if there must be Indian transplants working in the mines or if the local townsfolk had a particularly adventurous palate. It is difficult trying to use clues to answer questions like “why are you selling a giant bags of turmeric and jars of chutney” and “where is that awful smell coming from” but I’m still too timid to ask anyone directly as I don’t want to appear as if I’m gawking. CITY SLICKER MARVELS AT SMALL TOWN PECULIARITIES. I walked to the LCBO next door (all liquor stores are run by Ontario province) which is newly built and one of the swankiest building I’ve stepped into since arriving in Canada. I grab more grapefruit radler tallboys along with a pilsner and a cream ale in the walk in cooler in the back and head towards the front, musing about getting whiskey. I shoo the woman behind me in line towards the register, telling her I have nowhere to be and she can go ahead of me. We start chatting and without warning my vowels are deepened and extended and I dig deep into the words around me. It is a little known fact but I am a natural parrot and repeat back any accents and intonations I hear. My inclinations to people pleasing extend even to language itself.  I mention my bike tour to her and she asks “are you retired???” and I give my spiel “over 30, no husband, no kids, can do what I please.”  I ask if there is anything going on around town and the woman responds “since it’s Thursday, it’ll be wing night at Drifters, which is really the most happening thing around here.” I thank her for the tip and grab my paper bag of cans and wander out the door when an older woman stops me in the parking lot to ask me more details about my trip and she asks where I stay most night and I tell her about warmshowers.org so she can host her own bike tourists and she seems very excited, elbowing her husband and whispering “we need to do that!” A few minutes of pleasantries and I’m back into my motel room.

I settle in and devour the red pepper and raspberries first, hoping that all the fiber after days of industrial starch eating doesn’t cause an accidental intestinal cleaning. A vision of spicy wings danced in my head but even the few minutes of conversation with the women in the liquor store were overwhelming and I didn’t have patience for any small town bar politik. I spend the next few hours sipping on all of the cans of booze and watching hour after hour of VICE channel and I develop a brief infatuation with Matty Matterson and his gooey lasagna. It’s those Canadian vowels and meat sauce in tandem that just make me swoon. I still don’t understand Action Bronson though. It’s mostly just about displays of wealth through food. Expensive fried chicken eaten with organic wines on a Sydney rooftop is the new slick automobile. One fat black fly buzzed around the room as I spend hours sprawled out, the only activity is shifting the ice bag from one knee to the next or cracking open a fresh beer. I feel lazy. I try to build up my own myth and appeal to my teenage self and explain that I am On The Road and instead of Midwestern apple pie and ice cream I’m gauging geography through pancakes and side orders of sausages. I look up the quote from Kerouac and realize that it’s a dull sentence, that I remembered it having much more zing. I’m in this motel room in rural Ontario, closed in and realizing this Beat dreams were childish at best and it isn’t very adventurous to sip on booze in strange sheets. Not alone anyways. What especially echoes is Truman Capote’s critique of those Beats, that “it’s not writing, it’s just typing” as I feel the frustration overwhelm as I tr to compose coherent sentences on my phone, to keep plugging when all I want to do is nothing at all.

I stayed up til midnight again, my body rushed with anxiety and booze calories and I’m nervous from the picnic table of men drinking and smoking cigarettes a few feet from my door, reminded of the strange 3 am phone calls from the night before. But I realize if I can hear them laughing and talking, I at least know where they are. At some point I drift off, finding human warmth in the voices that float past the locked door.

MILES RIDDEN: zero

CURRENT MOOD:  Life isn’t about getting drunk and eating chicken fingers all the time

QUOTE: “I forgave everybody, I gave up, I got drunk.” Jack Kerouac, On The Road