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!”

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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

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?

in the hills

DAY 12:

The night was punctuated by headlamps shooting light beams near the edges of my tent. Two pit toilets were 100 meters from my tent and cars and trucks taking a break from Highway 17 would roll in for a pee. My tent was in a wooded nook, not terribly hidden but most car travelers don’t venture more than a few feet from their vehicles so it seemed relatively safe. Every time I heard wheels roll through I would shuffle quietly to the foggy plastic window of my tent and press my face close, trying to decipher footsteps and make sure that no one got curious about a bike leaning up next to a picnic bench. I tried to talk myself through the paranoia but it’s hard to feel brave alone on a mountaintop, limbs stuffed into a puffy sack. I kept my knife blade ready as a sort of compromise with emotions. I remember spying smudged stars dotted across the black sky through the plastic peephole. The first I’ve seen the entire journey.

I woke up unsteady and a bit hungover from worst case scenario loop. I only had a little over a liter of water so I had enough for a short coffee and to wash my hands after another day of Blood Management. I was wise enough to wander out to the lookout with my camera when I was sipping on my coffee and take a snap, to try to convince myself things weren’t as rough as they felt.

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that’s some Nat Geo shit right there

My knees were still tender from yesterday’s climb and I spent ten minutes brushing snarls out of my hair while mentally mapping out the rest of the day. I knew from the gravy boat neighbor at the diner the day before that there would be some serious climbs and I already felt a bit deflated. But I got on the bike, and rolled off gently trying to be kind to the last bit of cartilage in my joints.

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I don’t know how to describe the next part without getting into the absolutely gorgeous tedium that it involved, but it was a series of sharp inclines up to beautiful lake vista peaks followed by a deadly face plant descent that left my disc brakes hot to the touch and kegel muscles clenched like never before. Throughout these hours of grinding there are two competing thoughts that are vying for supremacy of my brain: absolute frustration at the never-ceasing ups and downs and a deep gratification for being able to experience that crushing panorama of profound blue lake. Like the day before, most of the uphill climbs are done dragging my bike upwards and gently asking for its cooperation and to not pivot suddenly and collapse on me when I go to scratch my nose.

Around 10 am the highway cuts towards the lake and temporary construction signs indicate that a stoplight is ahead and that traffic will be shrunk down to one lane. I see a small general store/tourist hunk/small town diner combo on my left and stopped hopeful for a hot cup of coffee (my standards for what I consider real coffee at this point are pretty much “brown” and “hot”). Walking in, on my left is a small restaurant with worn in tables and a crowd of regulars that I imagine have their own individual butt prints on each seat. To the right is a small store that sells fishing lures, gaudy tee shirts, all sorts of gemstones and more than vaguely racist First Nation paraphernalia like moccasins and items dotted with feathers. There were maybe a few bags of chips and a dimly lit cooler, but snacks were light. It was a time travel to the odd tourist trap stores that I remember going to in the UP of Michigan as a little girl. I ask for a coffee to go at the counter and cross my fingers that they take cards as I didn’t have any Canadian money and had low expectations for technology. The man just looked at me funny and grabbed the credit card machine. This is one of Canada’s odd blessings. You can be in the middle of nowhere and cell service is sketchy but by golly you can pull over to any roadside stand and they’ll have a chip reading credit card machine. While waiting for my coffee I wander into the hallway in between the restaurant and store and peruse the message board, which is covered with faded newspaper trimmed comics about fishing, neatly typed letters with Bible verses and bolded phrases on the need to accept Jesus NOW (limited time offer!) and a photograph of two men, one is on a loaded touring bike and the other one is up high on a penny farthing and they are holding hands and smiling. I tentatively place the date of the photograph to the nineties? I didn’t get a snap of it with my cell phone and this is a regret. I wonder if both of them made it all around the lake…..

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a relic

I quickly slugged back my coffee and got back on my bike for the next round of mountain climbs. My brain was rumbling with ideas so I kept pausing during climbs to scratch out thought onto ripped journal pages stuffed into my fanny pack. May none of these delusional thoughts ever see public light. Most of them involve elaborate planning of a presentation of this very journey, including French voiceovers and velcro ripaway clothing and a sense of the absurd that no one wants during a lecture on bike touring.

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I finally get another short break from climbs after a rushing glide downhill into the stretch near Rossport. This section of Highway 17 is one of the few that feature any signs for restaurants/motels/tourist attractions, which is quite nice from an aesthetic point of view but occasionally frustrating for a lone bike traveller who doesn’t get cell service and wants to know the distance to the next gas station. Rossport features a nice wooden sign and logo but the advertisements for Schreiber (just about 20 km away) featured a big red train. I don’t know of anyone who would be woo’d by the prospect of railroad museum that is over the age of ten, but what do I know. I still call them “choo-choos”. Since these two towns are so close, I imagine they are vying for the same small pool of tourist cash so that lil engine on the Schreiber logo tucked next to some cute trees might pull in some extra business. No mention of Schreiber being the site of one of the Japanese-Canadian internment camps during WWII though….

After a beautiful beach stretch where I was able to cruise and enjoy the lake a bit, another stretch of hills built upward and the morning’s coffee was long out of my system and the meager peanut butter and pita breakfast was long flamed out. My muscles got gummy and each new hill was trying on my patience. Like a magical beacon, the signs started to appear HUNGRY MOOSE RESTAURANT followed by the sultry FREE WIFI. “When will I reach this oasis?” I shouted at sky. THIRTY MINUTES AWAY the sign posted. The end was soon! I would be swimming in french fries and the pleasant ding of inbox messages in less than an hour! I am a full believer that nothing makes unnecessary suffering more bearable than the knowing when the discomfort will be over. I kept cranking away on those pedals, my focus on pushing those kilometers behind me. It was after another 45 minutes of biking and another wave of exhaustion set in that I finally set myself to logically thinking about those signs and realized that the time frame was for King Car and not for the lowly bike tourist. Thirty minutes in a car was easily an hour and a half on bike, especially in these curvy ups and downs, which in a car can be easily glided over. But the HUNGRY MOOSE signs kept coming, enticing me with only 15 MINUTES AWAY when the reality was much more brutal. By the time I reached the Hungry Moose it was 3 pm and I just hoped it was still willing to serve me in that awkward not-quite-lunch-nor-dinner time.

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sundrunk

There was a lone woman manning the Hungry Moose and she was fine with fixing me lunch. I ordered a sliced beef and peppers sandwich with dipping gravy, a side of fries and a coke. I asked her if she had a cell phone charger handy. Oh yeah, I forgot to mention. All of my chargers were just USB cords, I completely forgot to bring a wall adapter. The lack of cell phone juice has been a continual thorn in my paw and the reason I’ve taken so few snapshots and communicated rarely. Even with the new battery I purchased in Duluth, my phone doesn’t hold charge very long and it is a constant source of frustration. Luckily, the fine dame at the Hungry Moose found a cell phone charger so me and the phone both refueled. The decor was north woods kitch and the tables were sparse but there was a big screen television that was glowing with the handsome visage of Justin Trudeau, debating some sort of trade deal on Canadian CNN. I gobbled down the sandwich and stuffed fistfulls of fries in my face while Trudeau worked his charm on my road weary heart. I ordered a second round of fries and poured more salt on top, mopping up every drop of the brown gravy. All the calories hit my body like a brick. I ask the woman in charge about possible campsites nearby and she starts slinging me tall tales about bears. I was fully aware of the fact that the restaurant was the bottom section of a modest motel. I thank her for her concern, grab my bike and wander back onto the road.

I only have a few scant hours until sundown and I’m considering my camping options, which are pretty minimal unless I decide to crash into the bush. The next town I roll into is Terrace Bay and I am welcomed on the outskirts by a slick tourism center, built by Ontario province dollars. I wander inside hoping for some tips on where to camp and chat with the women at the front desk and find very quickly that there are three motels in town but no sort of local campground. I take a mini Canadian flag pin from the dish and decide to treat myself to a real bed. The three motels are all in a row on the main strip of town, located right on the highway. I roll into the first one, which is attached to a gas station and restaurant and I’m told not to go to the third motel, but to the second one which is much cleaner and nicer. Ah ha. Okay. I head to the second motel and snatch up their last room. The woman at the front desk mentioned something about mine shutting down as the reason for all the rooms being filled but I was mostly distracted by her 5 year old daughter peeling a tangerine and offering slices to her mom. The scent from the peels filled the office and her bounce and affection gave me something to smile about. I went to my room and flung about all of my things and organized them into the loose piles. I grabbed the ice bucket and head back to the front office and ask about where I could buy a cell phone charger. The front desk woman tells me there is a small electronics store, but they shut down at 5 pm and it’s already 4:50 pm. My city slicker brain still cannot wrap around the idea of all stores shutting by 6 pm. I hustle back to my room to drop off the ice bucket than mosey over to the tiny strip mall behind the motel and stroll past the electronics store and then also the pharmacy with hopes they might still be open a little late perchance. No dice. Next is the supermarket where I stupidly wander around with a grapefruit sparkling water until this woman unloading boxes asks me if I’m finding everything alright. I say yes but ask her if she knows of anyplace that might be open that might sell phone chargers and she gives me the same answer as the front office clerk but since i’m giving her the woe poor bike traveller spiel she asks me what motel I’m staying in and when I respond she looks into my eyes and says “right answer”. She owns the supermarket I’m standing in along with the motel where I’m bunked up and decides that she’ll loan me her charger for the evening. I notice her impeccably highlighted cropped hair and silver jewelery on her wrists and ears as she digs into her handbag for the charger. I have been in town less than two hours but I know that I have made a powerful ally. She lets me know that I can just drop off the charger at the front office tomorrow and I thank her warmly. I completely forget to buy any real food. But to the liquor store I go! I buy a grapefruit radler, a hard cider and some sort of local pilsner, all tallboys and soon I return to my room with a paper bag full of booze.

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open jar of PB + spork = motel easy livin’

I stepped into the bright pink bathroom (complete with fluffy kitty tissue box perched on the top of the toilet) and took a skin puckering hot shower while sipping radler. The TV is cranked loud and the original Ghostbusters is on the screen and I spend the rest of the night eating teriyaki jerky and spoons of peanut butter and drinking every drop of sweet boozy nectar and I don’t even feel a bit of a buzz, just exhaustion. I keep rotating the ice on each of my knees and hoping for some sort of relief but I’m too tired to even really give weight to the pain. I feel homesick and foolish. Isolating myself in this corner of the globe and tapping out blog posts on my phone and rolling through all these emotions that I can’t even quite process. I fall asleep unsteady at 12:30 am and around 4 am the sharp digital bleeps scream out of the motel room phone. After three rings I pick it up and shout into the receiver. There is no one there.

DISTANCE RIDDEN: 70 km (give or take since I still can’t find that picnic spot on the map)

SONG OF THE DAY: “I Lost Something in These Hills” by Sibylle Baier

fellow pilgrim

DAY 11:

The night passed with light rain and a heavy stream of sex terror dreams. Days with minimal human contact and perhaps the pheromones floating in the air from the annual moose rut have wrecked my subconscious and past lovers and lust interests enter into my tent and fill up all the space with something primal. I awake confused and ill rested and try to orient my brain with the brisk air pricking my face and the stench of my riding socks airing out in a mesh pouch above my head. I roll out of the tent and chug down a sobering cup of instant coffee made with cool water, bites of a peanut butter smeared pita serving as breakfast.

Rolled back onto highway 17 and for the first hour traffic was light and I was able to soak in the sun and get some kilometers in without the constant terror of zooming trucks. For vast stretches the highway would roll on without mile markers or billboards and I would remember Bill Bryson’s descriptions of the Australian outback and then I would wonder if anyone is crazy enough to bike through that desert. Then I start to wonder if I should have a Name That Bruise Contest and post a picture of the black n’ blue blob on my inner knee and find out what my friends and acquaintances on the internet can see in the Rorschach test that are my limbs. I personally think it looks like Alaska but I wonder what other people will see. Bike touring allows for mind tangent wandering that is only similar to Sunday church services and 3 pm at a reception desk and you become absolutely convinced that whatever idea floats through your heads is genius! hilarious! oh if only I had some wifi to share the quip with the world!

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At one point I see a Suburu cruise past and the entire car is covered in photographs, each one bordered with hot pink duct tape. From the distance they appeared to be pictures of women and I wondered if it was some sort of traveling activist. I remembered reading articles about the murders of indigenous women in Canada and I wonder if this is related, but from the few seconds I had to scan the car, I couldn’t know for sure.  Another moment where this ridiculous fantasy quest butts up against reality, that no matter how much fear I feel while alone in my tent I can comfort myself with the knowledge that I have a safe place to travel home to. I think often of those women who don’t feel safety when they sleep. I wonder what they dream about.

My ponder filled ride was interrupted by a patch of construction and the already inhospitable highway becomes even more difficult to navigate. At one point my minimal shoulder ends via a concrete barrier and I try to go around through mounds of thick gravel and I’m pulling my bike like a dead body through this shit and when I get to the end I realize there is another barrier and I’m forced to shuck my panniers off the bike and hoist it over the barrier and re-load it again. I took this photograph because it seemed unreasonable to me.

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what am i looking at, exactly?

The visual doesn’t really resonate with me now. But soon after re-mounting my bike I faced thick streams of fast moving traffic, drivers already irritated by the construction delays and trying to make up for lost time. The shoulder I am riding on has now shrunk to 12 inches in width at it’s greatest and for the first time I feel the full brunt of a truck blast, the burst of wind that can come from behind a speeding 16 wheeler and I white knuckled my handlebar as my bike floated into the loose gravel next to me. I wobbled but didn’t fall down. In addition to the disorienting truck blasts, I would occasionally get dusted with the dust of dried pig shit that would flow off the back of trucks carrying animals to slaughter. The instant I would get that first tang of feces I would pull up my scarf to cover my nose and mouth, making sure not to suck it all into my lungs.

The kilometers were getting tougher, the construction move invasive into the highway and my nerves felt like they had been run over a cheese grater. By the time I spotted a truck stop in the distance, I was elated. Except the exhausted can’t elated so I just sighed, exhaling gravel smoke and livestock stink. Rolling into the parking lot I spot a loaded bike leaning up against the outside the truck stop and a man in a highlighter yellow t-shirt standing next to it. A FELLOW TRAVELER? It was rare to see another camper, let another another bike rider. At first I consider it a mirage but by the time I lean my bike up beside his and start to say hello, I feel relief. Both of us just look at each other and exasperated sigh WHAT THE HELL DID WE JUST BIKE THROUGH? I begin to stream out a string of  expletives relating to the traffic and the wind while simultaneously grinning from ear to ear at the presence of another human who could possibly understand what the hell I’m ranting about. He holds up the gallon ziplock bag he’s holding full of shower supplies and let’s me know that he is going to go shower (truck stops got it all) but that he’d join me in the diner afterwards. He had some vicious saddle sores and one popped, as I determined through his gestures to his crevices, he had an accent and there were some incomplete phrases but I’m good at this game. I shuffle off  to the diner and grab a table and blink off an order of french toast. My good spirits were slightly dampened by the fact that was NO WIFI but I plug in all my devices and start looking over my map for possible spots to sleep tonight.

The bike traveler slid into my table just as my three slices of french toast had arrived, along with three white sausage links that had been split down the middle and pressed down onto the flattop which made them heavenly golden and a bit crisp. The three slices of french toast are pilled onto a small platter and I instantly dump two tubs of cheap maple syrup on top and scoop out each single serving of butter the waitress provided and smear it on top. The petroleum that I’m not using from car travel is definitely being budgeted to the single serve creamer/butter/maple syrup containers I leave in my wake after each meal. Each piece of toast is light but eggy substantial and if angels exist they are Ontario truck stop griddle masters, I remove my cap in awe at their skills.

Oh yeah, back to the human sitting in front of me! I suffer from selective hearing once a plate of food is placed in front of me, everything just becomes a low hum and until it is licked clean I don’t really register much of anything that is going on outside of the plate to face pipeline. But he is here with salt and pepper wavy hair and a bright shirt and possesses that calm that only arrives after a much needed shower. He orders an omelette and I’m surprised when he doesn’t order coffee. He sniffs at my cream and sugar sludge and declares it to not be coffee. He likes espresso. Oh well, isn’t that so continental of you, sir! He’s Polish and he tells me that he goes by Nestor but I try to pronounce his actual name in Polish and he produces a combination of an eye roll and a sigh that I haven’t seen since high school. Nestor, I’ll stick with Nestor. He is 43 and a former international tax attorney (“oooh, that sounds interesting!” “it’s not” he sighs again) who decided to change his life once he turned 40 and started bike touring. He’s biked through Australia and confirms that rural Ontario is pretty bleak, but nothing like the outback. He’s heading across Canada towards Toronto and to find a job of sorts to get money so he can keep traveling. Nestor picks up one of the tubs of maple syrup with curiosity and I tell him to stick a finger in and try it, telling him its sweet. He hesitates but finally tries a bit and just simply shrugs. I try to explain that the real stuff is better, but he isn’t hearing it.

I tell him about my fussy knees and he states that I’m likely not eating enough salt. Like a kindergartner seeking to impress her new playground buddy with a gross out, I grab the salt shaker and twist of the top and pour a tablespoon of salt into the palm of my left hand and slam it into my mouth at once. It feels like sand on the flat of my tongue and my body merely shrugs. NOT A GOOD SIGN. Nestor creates another facial combination of an eye roll and giggle and his amusement takes the edge of the internal meltdown I am having regarding my poor nutrition. At this point Nestor’s omelette arrives, the size of a baby seal studded with ham bits and peppers and with a stack of hot buttered toast next to it. I begin to sneak slices of toast.

Sometimes I forget that I speak quick, slimy with strange vocabulary and bits of slang I like and with grammatical carelessness and a slight lisp as a cherry on top. Poor Nestor is trying to follow along with my particular brand of American language, a whirred milkshake of Hunter S. Thompson, Valerie Solanas and a Tarantino protagonist, pushed into overdrive from social isolation and a caffeine high. After the first hour he settles in and we plot the next section as he pulls up a saved google map to show a picnic area around 30 km away, which seems close until we start to take into account the upcoming mountains. A large man with a gravy boat perched on the edge of his table chimed in. “The hills that are coming up are big.” I just sigh and “fuck” plops out of my mouth. Nestor laughs and says how much he admires the word “fuck” and all the emotions that it can contain. I prefer it as punctuation to unspeakable emotion. I have a moment of quiet victory when he takes the last piece of toast and starts to dunk it into the maple syrup. Our conversation is winding through past travels and dream tours and why normal life is boring when over the diner floats the first few moans. I fling up my hands and shout HOLD ON A SEC to Nestor as Mariah Carey’s voice grows loud and I begin singing along with gusto as Nestor is just confused but at this point used to the feeling and let’s me have my moment. I know it is time for us to now say goodbye. We pay our checks and I stuff salt packets into my dry bag and walk out to the bikes. Nestor hands me a bag of Maynard’s Swedish berries and tells me to eat a bag a day “for my knees”.  Stealing my heart with those gummi candies, m’dear. We ride together for a short stretch before we shout our bon voyages over the roar of trucks. Goodbye Nestor, you glacier blue eyed Polish papi! We’ll always have Nipigon! GOOD LUCK WITH YOUR BUTT!

 

Right outside of Nipigon the highway begins to scale upwards and gravy boat man wasn’t exaggerating. The “short” jaunt of 30 km to the picnic grounds where I would be crashing seemed to be far off. My knees were still aching and although Nestor’s company gave me a boost, I still felt worn down from the morning’s slog. A weird quirk I developed was taking a selfie when I am feeling unsure or upset. Maybe it was because I see so few mirrors in comparison to my normal life or I’m just vain or I can’t believe in my own existence without an image to confirm it (PSYCHOANALYZE ME PLEASE) but anytime the going got rough, the tough took a selfie.

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*soft lighting and a sly smile but she’s screaming inside*

At this point I have no idea where I’m going to sleep for the night, but gosh darn it the sun is shining and let’s just make it work. The climbs may be brutal but the view is absolutely gorgeous. I reach Kama Bay, which is the northernmost point of Lake Superior. A milestone! I’m moving forward! Nothing is futile! Progress is being made! MY KNEEEEES.

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I was running out of daylight, as I had left the truck stop around 3 pm and only had a few hours to get to the picnic spot before night crept in. But the views! I could have stopped every ten minutes to take another Impressive Vista photograph. And would you look at that narrow shoulder! You’ll get to experience the beautiful blue expanse of Lake Superior, but you just may lose your life to a logging truck doing it. But seriously, at this section of Ontario, Mama Lake puts parts of the Pacific Ocean to shame.

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I finally find the picnic area at the very top of the mountain, it is a short path from off the highway and there is a pair of pit toilets and two spaces that were a bit nestled into the woods, with a small clearing and a concrete picnic table. Essentially, they were the same as any campsite I had been to in Canada. I notice there is a small trail to a look out but I’m focused on getting set up. I pitch my tent and make a pot of chicken flavored ramen with strips of teriyaki jerky, sprinkle of Vietnamese curry powder and a packet of soy sauce (DAT SODIUM), chili blend, dried shiitakes and avocados. While I’m cooking dinner a mini van pulls up and a man wanders to the trail to look at the vista. He sees me and I wave, trying not to seem concerned. At this point I realize that I am at a picnic spot on an isolated spot on a mountain top, accessible to anyone off the highway and I am alone and there is no good place to run if the worst occur. Yep, yep, great. The man asks me if I’m with the other biker who is down the mountain, he saw him snapping photos on the side of the road. I imagine this is Nestor and I wonder if I should do that bullshit thing that women do and be like “oh yes he’s my HUSBAND and I’m just waiting for him” but I don’t and explain that I’d met him but I’m here alone. The man explains that he’s from Winnepeg and that he was traveling through and wanted to stop because he remembered coming by here as a child, but there was much more tourism then. He kept digging through his van to find something to offer me, he has a small cooler and I tell him I’m fine but he pulls out a bunch of bananas and we all know I won’t refuse a banana. “They’re organic. My wife gets ’em for me” the man obviously indifferent to fruit or health. He says goodbye with a look of concern on his face. I’m sure he also did the same anxiety calculus in his head that I did in mine. What about the bad men. The bad men.

I grab the pot and wander over to the lookout and allow myself to appreciate the expanse for at least a few moments while my safety concerns churn. The sun melts into the treeline and I am telling myself to accept these circumstances. I can’t prevent death of any type, not the ones from speeding trucks or random murderers or even lung cancer or old age. So maybe I should just enjoy the damn sunset.

DISTANCE RIDDEN: 81 kilometers

SONG OF THE DAY: Highway 61 Revisited by Bob Dylan. So beat.

HAPPY PLACE: large cheese pizza with Robert and Aurica. unlimited soda.

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DAY 10:

Storms blew in overnight and every rattle of my tent was a curious bear or lighting strike or DOOM ITSELF. Sleep was light and I didn’t bother wandering around the park when I awoke at daybreak. I’m sure it is absolutely breathtaking and worth the many kilometers deep into the bush, but all I saw was a quite nice lake. *shrug*

I started the long and lonely road back into the highway without coffee or breakfast. I remembered that there was a truck stop at top of the hill so at the very least that could motivate my push onwards. Wellll, I didn’t get less daunting overnight. 

I grabbed my handlebars and started the slow march. Oh, yeah, I have NO SHAME in walking my bike up hills, especially these long and brutal inclines I encounter in Canada. It gives my knees a bit of a break and my body the opportunity to use different muscle groups for a little bit. I don’t want to be giant calves and noodle arms. Even though I didn’t pedal up this beast, I took at least three brakes and also just enjoyed the view a bit. I finally reach the top of the hill and run across the highway for some tasty hotcakes. Oh goodness, those pancakes. Putting on my food nerd cap, I notice that poutine is offered as an additional side and there are these pastries called persians that I was told about in Thunder Bay as being a regional specialty and I see them on menus as “toasted persians”. I never order one so the mystery still stands…

I’m chugging coffee, cramming in loud bites of breakfast, eyeballing the handsome construction worker to my left and sucking on the sweet free wifi, furiously messaging with bike tour veterans back home about what I should do about my knees. There is some talk about IT band stretches and ice but mostly I’m told to stop stressing and take it slow. Just let the pedals spin and stop forcing it too hard. I try to let this sink in as I finish my last drops of coffee and fill up my water bottles at the server sink. She told me not to use the bathroom water because it isn’t good and so going forward I always ask cashiers and servers to fill ’em for me, which they do patiently trying not to show how grossed out they are by the grungy vessels, covered with road gunk.

After my meal and warming internet chats with friends, I’m feeling more optimistic. I received a strong and stead tailwind for a good hour or so and it feels like I’m being pulled along via an imaginary ski lift. I liked to think that a friend of mine in the afterlife pulled a spike from the front wheel of St. Catherine’s cruiser bike and patched the flat and this was the small miracle she repaid him with…

The kilometers pass by smooth and around 4 pm I see a sign WOLF RIVER CAMPGROUND: 1 KM. I take a deep breath and hope for not another red herring as I turn off the highway onto a dirt road. The ride was short and I ended up at a private home with a garage and a sign pointing to the porch door as OFFICE. A note was tacked up stating they were working on the grounds. I begin to wander around the grounds, noticing the heavily decorated and fortified RVs, hoping to spot someone shuffling about but it was all still. After about five minutes I see a man in the distance with a chainsaw in one hand walking slowly towards me. “You the owner?” I ask. He gestures towards the chainsaw as if “well, duh.” We head into the “office” which is the side room of the house outfitted with a wooden counter with a neat pile of the local newspaper and a small display of amethysts for sale. This region of Ontario is known for its amethysts mines and these were a bit rough and tumble, not tourist slick. I imagine they were scouted by the owner. This is a 100% DIY operation. I get a campsite for the night and a bag of ice for my knees. I jokingly ask about bears and he says that one took out his apple tree for the second year in a row. “I now know when I tell the wife we should pick the apples tomorrow, that really means TODAY.” He also mentions that the salmon aren’t in the river in his campground, but plenty have bern spotted at the conservatory across the highway. Oh, and the hills that I have coming up. He states with a chuckle that the next few days will be challenging. Har har har.

My campsite is quiet and only a few minutes hobble away from Wolf River. For the duration of my stay, I will not see another human. I’ll hear a few hushed words, a screen door shut but no one says hello. Rural Ontario is an introvert’s paradise. No small talk, no smiles or hand waves, just ghosts.

 After chilling down the knees I made a deluxe dinner of lemon garlic noodles, which I added extra garlic for maximum stink (and to fight my cold), dried shiitake mushrooms and mixed in 1/4 a kilo of local gouda cheese curds I bought in Thunder Bay, creating a sort of bastard poutine. For appetizers I ate an avocado with my spork and took shots off generic orange jello powder because the gelatin might help my joints?  Whatever, it was 88 cents and I’m still getting in some sugar.

I spent the rest of the evening reading in my tent and listening to my trumpeting cheese farts echo throughout the silent campground. Canada, this is my mighty roar!
MILES RIDDEN: 69 km

HAPPY PLACE: sitting outside Modern Times, drinking a cup of coffee knowing that in 20 minutes I’ll be shoveling in a plate of migas with scrambled tofu and avocado slices and it’s all squirted with their homemade habanero hot sauce.

SONG OF THE DAY: Slow and Low by the Beastie Boys