The Rolling Reception
This wheel’s on fire,
Rollin’ down the road.
Best notify my next-of-kin,
This wheel shall explode!
– Bob Dylan & The Band
Last summer marks the tenth anniversary of the most incredibly fun and challenging adventure I’ve ever been part of.
In April 2003, my wife, Mollie, and I got married on top of Heart Mountain, in the front ranges of the Canadian Rocky Mountains near Exshaw, Alberta. It was a small ceremony, attended by a few friends and relations, and our two dogs Mac and Ozzy. Having lived all across North America and with big, widely dispersed families, a small private ceremony seemed to make practical and financial sense.
But many would-be attendees felt excluded, and we wanted to share our nuptials with all our friends. So in late winter, we came up with the perfect solution – rather than asking everyone to come to our wedding, why not bring the wedding to them?
Mollie and I had just returned from a few years’ living in rural Virginia. We were keen to reacquaint ourselves with Canada, and had been talking for at least a year about embarking on a big bicycle tour, something neither of us had ever done before. All of a sudden the pieces started to fit together: small wedding, well-dispersed friends and family, celebration of Canada, bike trip…
In Kon-Tiki, explorer Thor Heyerdahl describes how “Once in a while you find yourself in an odd situation. You can get into it by degrees and in the most natural way but, when you are right in the midst of it, you are suddenly astonished and ask yourself how in the world it all came about.”
We didn’t end up on a bamboo raft in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, but at least as far as the genesis of our idea, Heyerdahl and we had a lot in common.
Almost as soon as the words were spoken between us, the notion took root. And within a couple months it went from an idea, to a plan, to us packing our meagre possessions into storage, relieving ourselves of the burdens of fixed address and utility bills, and setting out on an epic journey of a rolling wedding-reception/honeymoon.
In 89 days, Mollie and I traversed Canada by bicycle. Our trip started on May 15 in Victoria, British Columbia, and ended on August 13 at Cape Spear, Newfoundland. We rode just over 7,400 kilometres in 69 days of actual biking. We travelled on paved roads, avoiding the busiest highways wherever possible. We slept in ditches, parks, fields, hedgerows, forests, the houses of new and old friends and family, and occasionally hotels. We ate and drank whatever we wanted, unabashedly. We lived in the elements, in blazing heat, freezing cold, all manner of precipitation, wind, and even a dust storm. So many insects feasted on us that we grew indifferent to their presence. We saw every species of wildlife for which Canada is famous – bear, moose, elk, buffalo, beaver, fox, coyote, and so on – up close. We suffered four flat tires, a dozen broken spokes, and two serious mechanical breakdowns.
We planned our route to intersect with as many friends and family as possible, and in their homes, we hosted miniature wedding receptions. We bought some booze and cooked a meal, showed a video of our marriage, and celebrated with them, usually into the early hours of the morning. Instead of hosting one big party, we spread it out across the country and had fifteen smaller ones instead.
When you decide to undertake such an adventure, you grow a lot both as a person and as a couple, and you learn many valuable lessons. After ten years of marriage, a fair bit of personal reflection, and sharing these stories hundreds of times, here are some of the things that resonate the most.
Focus on the Journey
The Trans-Canada Highway has two Mile Zeroes: One at either end, in Victoria and Saint John’s. Both will tell you that the end of the road is some 8,000 kilometres away. On May 15th, 2003, staring at the Mile Zero marker at Beacon Hill in Victoria, which was, perhaps, the scariest statistic I had ever seen. Were we kidding ourselves? Was this folly? How could it even be possible to travel all that way on bicycles?
We stalled a little bit; walked down to the Pacific Ocean and dipped our front wheels; went to the toilet; shifted and secured our gear; took off layers of clothing, then put them back on again. Before long we had exhausted all excuses to delay setting out.
And we got on our bikes, and started cycling.
On that first day, we climbed a big hill to get out of Victoria. It hurt, but we made it over. We spent that first night near Duncan, camped in a park beneath a massive cedar. It poured all night. The next morning in Nanaimo, I broke my decade-long abstinence from coffee. I’ve never looked back.
Here’s the thing: it’s certainly possible to finish a journey like this by focussing on nothing but the final destination, thousands of kilometres away. But fixating on the end nullifies the true reward of undertaking the trip in the first place. If you do it right, the journey is its own destination. Focussing on the destination is pointless; if you direct your energy to the journey, you’ll get there incrementally, often times without realizing how much closer you’re getting. If you direct your energy at the trip’s objective, the distance seems farther. Sure, you can still get there. But you’ll arrive with the feeling that you missed something, and you’ll be right – you will have cheated yourself out of the best part.
Travelling by bicycle imposes a slower pace on one’s existence. By the standards of modern travel, 100 kilometres is not a long distance to travel in a day. When you pass through the world more gradually, and without a windshield to separate you from the elements, your sensual acuity is heightened, you participate more actively in your environment, and you live more in the moment. On hot days, we’d roll through road cuts where the exposed rock would cook you, only to traverse a small stream and drink in its cool refreshing misty micro climate. We would frequently stop to chase down the smell of tiny ripe wild strawberries. One morning, on the north shore of Lake Superior, I stood naked beside our tent at the edge of the road allowance, and tried in vain for an hour to get the attention of a single passing motorist. The contrast was complete: My wife and I were rising to meet the day, in our own personal paradise, right beside Canada’s main thoroughfare, completely invisible to every traveller of more conventional means.
For a whole summer, we woke up every morning knowing exactly what we had to do: go for a bike ride, see some Canada, enjoy each other’s company, and live well. We did that every day, and three months later we dipped our wheels in the raging Atlantic Ocean at Cape Spear. It almost happened by accident.
When we returned to Calgary at the end of the summer, I decided to cycle to Golden, British Columbia – 285 kilometres in a single day – to retrieve our car from a friends’ house. I was well-rested, unburdened by heaving touring gear, and riding a much nimbler bike. Besides, if I got tired or broke down, I figured I could stash my bike in the woods, hitchhike to Golden, and pick it up on the way back.
During a snack break in Lake Louise, I met a cross-Canada cyclist. Feeling some camaraderie and near-term nostalgia, I approached him and asked about his trip. In one sentence he told me four things: he was traveling east to west; he was planning to finish in 40 days or less; in order to do this he needed to cover no less than 160 kilometres every day; and I was currently inhibiting him from achieving this goal.
After pondering the paradox between cycling across Canada and being in a hurry, I offered to accompany and support my new friend as far as Golden. He turned me down, doubtful of my ability to match his pace. There’s something in my character that requires me to respond to that kind of arrogance thusly: I jokingly challenged him to a race. Then I finished my snack, got back on my bike, and never saw him again.
One could be forgiven for assuming that the meanest, most intimidating hills are found in western Canada in the mountains of British Columbia and Alberta, but this is not the case. See, in the west road-builders had the sense (and really, little in the way of options) to follow the gentler grades of watercourses, and to overcome steeper sections through the judicious use of switchbacks. In the ancient, rounded, perhaps less dramatic mountainous landscape of the east, however, road surveyors appear to have had something of an axe to grind. Rather than respecting the landscape and following its contours, roads go directly and defiantly right up and over anything they encounter. Nowhere is this truer than on the northern shore of the Saint Lawrence River in Quebec.
It was after climbing one such hill leaving Baie-Saint-Paul – so steep at times that we struggled to keep our front wheels on the ground – that Mollie noticed something “not quite right” with her bike’s gears. She asked me to give it a spin to check it out, and with the first push of the pedal we heard an unsettling snap, and I looked down to see her rear derailleur skipping along the asphalt. Her derailleur dropout – a piece of aluminium that connects your derailleur to your bike’s frame, and is as unique to the bike’s make and model as your fingerprints are to you – had snapped in two. We were in the middle of nowhere, missing a spare part that we didn’t even know existed until it broke, with what looked like two viable options: We could take several links out of the chain, bypass the derailleur, and convert Mollie’s bike into a single-speed; or I could tow Mollie to the nearest town. Not trusting our ability to improvise something reliable, and intimidated by the terrain in which we found ourselves, we went with the second option. I found a length of rope, looped it around my seat post and both sides of Mollie’s handlebars, and hauled her 14km to the nearest town, ironically called “La Malbaie” (roughly translated to “the Bad Bay”).
We come from the only officially bilingual province in Canada. The upshot of this is that every little New Brunswickan has to take a French (or English) language class, in every grade of school. In theory, this means every kid who grows up in New Brunswick should be functionally two-tongued. Now, take this theory and apply it to the following situation: You find yourself in an unreservedly francophone region of Quebec. You can’t find a bicycle shop. Even if you could, you don’t know the French translation for “derailleur dropout”, so all those French classes were functionally useless. There’s no tow truck for bicycles – no one to rescue you from the ditch, carry you to safety, make repairs, and send you on your way.
It takes a special kind of person to pick up two stinky hitchhikers, with two bikes and 50 kilos of gear. Lucky for us, a philosophy professor named Gilles came into our lives at exactly the right time. He collected us and our gear, drove us to the ferry at Saint-Simeon, bought us breakfast, and made sure we were safely delivered to a friend’s mother’s house in Riviere du Loup. From there we contacted a bike shop in Quebec City, had a spare dropout (turns out the French word is le dropout) sent up on the bus, and then watched with apprehension while the local bikesmith “modified” the piece (which was actually from a more recent model) with an angle grinder.
Bicycles are resilient, efficient, and ingenious machines. We travelled with tools to fix most things that can break on a bike – and we used all those tools and parts to fix our own bikes and those of fellow, less-prepared travellers. But sometimes life brings surprises, and there’s nothing to encourage adaptation more than leaving yourself with few options but to find a way through.
People are Good
As a touring cyclist, you kind of stand out at roadside stops like service stations, rest areas, scenic viewpoints, or parks. For starters, there are the bikes, laden with more stuff than most people consider a bicycle capable of carrying. The notion of using a bicycle as a means to get anywhere beyond a quick jaunt to the store or a little cruise on a pathway is tough for many to grasp.
And then there’s the demeanour of the bike traveller, the manner in which we occupy these spaces. Most regard them as brief stopovers; they get out of their cars, stretch tentatively, grab a snack, maybe snap a quick photo, and then return to the business of getting somewhere. Fast. We cyclists though, we treat these places as short-term, outdoor domiciles. A picnic table as a kitchen; a curb as a couch; a small patch of grass as a private sun porch; a vacant patch of sidewalk as an elegant dining room.
When you’re that different from the average traveller, people take notice. And then they take the – nowadays uncommon – initiative to approach you, and engage in conversation with total strangers.
Usually, the first question is “Where are you going?” Then there’s a brief recoil of incredulity at the answer. The next question is usually “Why would you want to do that?” followed by an assumption that we’re drawing attention to some political passion, or raising money for a charity. More commonly than we expected, people would say things like “I always wanted to do that!” Near Kenora Ontario, we met a retired railway worker who reminisced with us about a tour he did as a teenager from his home in Norway all the way to southern Italy. He told us of stopping at grocery stores and buying tubs of margarine to lubricate their rear wheels and keep the brakes from heating to the point of seizure.
At service stations and trading posts, we’d frequently be asked if we needed anything. At least a couple generous people gave us money, despite our protests that we didn’t need it, and that we weren’t collecting for charity. “Have a meal on me,” said one kind fellow.
Occasionally, and usually as a result of unintentional trespassing, we’d be approached by locals with initial hostility. In eastern Manitoba, we were camped on an abandoned and crumbling stretch of former highway. Rob Pankratz, the farmer of the adjacent lands, drove out in his truck to see what we were up to. It was twilight on a beautiful prairie evening, and we had just finished dinner and were cleaning up before bedtime beneath the kaleidoscope sky. When he rolled up and asked us to state our business, we first perceived him as confrontational. But within a few minutes of explanation and as soon as he realized we were no threat, Rob was completely disarmed; in fact, he invited us to come sleep in his barn that night. We respectfully declined since we had already set up camp for the night, but happily accepted his invitation to breakfast with his family the next morning.
All across Canada, so many people were kind to us. From offers of food and supplies, fixing our bikes, to invitations to come into a stranger’s home to get warm, have a beer, or to stay the night. It was truly inspirational and restorative of our faith in humanity to experience such welcoming kindness. We were even invited on to the Anishnawbek First nation of Henvey Inlet, and asked to participate in a Sacred Fire ceremony as part of a communal healing process – a wholly incredible and life-altering experience, deserving of its own article.
In every instance Mollie and I tried to convey our gratitude as graciously as we could. And it’s made us double our efforts to be hospitable and welcoming when friends or strangers cross our path.
The pinnacle random act of kindness came our way in Port Hood, Nova Scotia. This was the third and final motel we stayed at on our trip, and as in the other two cases, our decision to spring for some indoor accommodation was heavily influenced by the previous day’s weather. The previous night was rainy and cold, and earlier that Wednesday descending to the Canso Causeway which connects Cape Breton to mainland Nova Scotia, the rain was so hard that it stung our faces, and forced us to close our windward right eyes despite wearing glasses. At a truck stop on the Nova Scotia side, we determined that whatever else happened that day, we were sleeping inside, on a bed, with the heat cranked high that night.
So we pushed on to Port Hood, and checked into the Hebridean Motel. The woman behind the desk, Florence, welcomed us to Cape Breton and told us of a ceilidh (Gaelic for party) going on that evening in Judique, 15 kilometres back up the road we’d just come. We explained to Florence that, though a ceilidh sounded like a lot of fun, 15k was about an hour’s ride by our mode of transportation, so we’d likely have to pass. Without hesitation, Florence insisted that we borrow her car for the evening. Grateful and a little dumbfounded, we humbly accepted and asked for directions to the nearest station so we could cover our gas. She scoffed. “It’s only in Judique! You’ll hardly burn any gas!” So off we went to the Judique Community Hall in a borrowed motel clerk’s car, to take in some local colour and enjoy the music of the Beaton family fiddlers. It was a memorable evening, and one of the kindest things a stranger’s ever done for us.
It’s not about the Gear
There is no recognized standard for equipment required to traverse Canada by bicycle.
One rainy Thursday in late June, along the Trans-Canada Highway between Dryden and Thunder Bay, we happened to meet two other cross-country cyclists from either extreme of the gear spectrum.
The first, Brian, was a potato farmer from Outlook, Saskatchewan. In the summer of 2002 Brian had cycled from Victoria to Winnipeg, before harvest called him back to the farm; his plan was to complete the journey in 2003. When we came upon Brian he was cycling at an easy pace, atop his department-store-bought bike, clad in a heavy cotton sweatshirt, combat fatigue pants, and a wide-brimmed hat. Attached to his bike were wire panniers over the rear wheel, and a plastic milk crate taped to his handlebars. The panniers held a pillow and a sleeping bag, both in black garbage bags to protect them from the elements. In the milk crate was a sleeve of soda crackers, a carton of cigarettes, and various other items. Brian told us he was sleeping under whatever shelter was available, usually the covered dugouts of municipal baseball diamonds.
Then, at a visitor’s centre in Ignace, we met Hap. Hap was a “semi-retired” financial executive from Calgary. When we met him he was lunching outside his support vehicle: an RV driven by his much younger wife, Pat. Their strategy was that Pat would drive ahead several kilometres, make arrangements for a place to stay (they never actually slept in the RV), do some scrapbooking of the journey, and wait for Hap to arrive. If something went sideways en route, they could reach one another using the satellite phone that Hap carried, along with some snacks, a rain jacket, and a few other necessities. Behind the RV was a trailer containing several spare bicycles for different road conditions, including a recumbent for those times when Hap’s posterior was feeling a little sensitive.
Mollie and I were decidedly in between Brian and Hap on the gear continuum. Probably a little closer to the Brian end, but in any case we felt we had what we needed to undertake the adventure. I’m sure Brian and Hap felt the same way.
Later that afternoon, fate conspired to bring Hap, Pat, Brian, Mollie and I together in the same roadside diner. The only other patrons in the restaurant were in the booth next to Mollie and I. I had noticed their bikes – the motorized kind – in the parking lot, and had recognized them from when they roared past us a half hour prior. I also recognized a familiar insignia on the back of their denim vests. I went to clean up before ordering, and when I returned from the washroom Mollie introduced me to our friends, continued a discussion (mostly carried by the older of the two bikers) about how we really need to be carrying an Italian “moka pot” espresso maker on our travels, and then told me how these two nice men had invited us to visit them on our way through Thunder Bay at “the Angel House” – they were planning a party for the weekend. We thanked them for the invitation, and I must say we gave serious consideration to attending, but were strongly discouraged by our Thunder Bay hosts.
We’ve since acquired a moka pot, and we use it regularly to make “Hells’ Angels Coffee”.
“You can’t do that.”
Any time you endeavour to take something on that’s a little outside the ordinary, that’s beyond the comfort zone of most of your peers, there will be a subset of your friends, family, and even strangers you meet that will react to this by telling you it can’t be done. We call these people “nay-sayers”.
I have a theory about nay-sayers and what motivates them. I think they say “you can’t do that,” when they really mean “I can’t do that.” When you challenge yourself, it makes them feel threatened because they have made themselves comfortable with the notion that it’s not possible for anyone. But it’s possible that you can do it, and then it might be possible that they can do it too. Excuses to nay-sayers are like security blankets to children – if you take them away, you’re going to create discomfort, and probably make someone a little unsettled.
When we set out on this adventure, we were easy targets for the nay-sayers. We were not experienced long-haul cyclists. We were not in great shape. We didn’t have the best gear; we didn’t even know what the best gear was. And all that aside, Canada is a massive country; we had no assurance it could be done.
In Horseshoe Bay, on the second day of our trip, some guy looked critically at my full-suspension mountain bike, with slick tires, and a trailer in tow, and said, “You’re gonna cross Canada? On that thing? I don’t think so.”
The words hit hard, and sunk in deep. Here we were, on the west end of the second-biggest country in the world, without any real clue about what it might take to make it all the way to the other side. Some stranger that looked like he might know what he’s talking about just told us our quest is impossible. Was he right? Were we fooling ourselves? Should we just give up now?
Neither of us was ready to give up without even giving it a shot, so we decided to press on. Within two weeks we had traversed the Western Cordillera, and arrived on the near edge of the prairies in Calgary. Across British Columbia we encountered a couple more nay-sayers, and with each new meeting, their nay-saying decreased in potency. We also met plenty of great, positive, encouraging supporters, and we chose to take hold of that energy for edification.
Two months later, waiting for the ferry to Newfoundland in Sydney Harbour, we encountered our last nay-sayer. After 7,000 kilometres of cycling, this guy was still convinced that we would never make it. Nay-sayers. Creationists. Climate change deniers. What’s to be done with these people?
Sometimes we can be our own worst nay-sayers. We all fight an instinct to talk ourselves out of things that we really want to do, mostly for fear of failure. We manufacture excuses, and reasons why it’s just not quite the perfect time to do it. The truth of the matter is this: there is no perfect time to do anything. Waiting for the perfect time will lead to a long time waiting, followed by a lifetime of regret. It takes courage to take the first step towards a big adventure, but that’s the hardest part. Every step builds on the last, and before you know it you’re doing that thing, and it is… perfect.
Endure Hardship, Enjoy Comfort
Living simply and outdoors for a period of time really changes one’s perspective on comfort. On our trip, it rained a lot. Mollie estimates that we were rained on 3 out of every 4 days. So any time we were able to be dry, we felt absolutely luxurious.
On our first night out, we realized that our tent was leaky. I had spent a summer some years prior as a geology field assistant on the Yukon River, and the depleted Ozone Layer and commensurately intense UV rays had reduced our tent’s outer skin to a faded and frail permeable membrane. It only got really wet inside the tent during particularly violent deluges, which only happened once in a while. On “normal” rainy nights, we just grew accustomed to the little pockets of damp inside the tent. Completely dry nights were rare enough to feel like a real treat.
We were so accustomed to sleeping in sogginess that it was not until we reached Terrace Bay, Ontario – close to half way across Canada – which we decided to purchase a $10 tarp as an extra layer of protection.
Another hardship was the wind. There’s a popular myth that in North America, wind almost always blows west to east. Though this may be true in the troposphere, it does not bear out on the ground. Wind’s cruel legerdemain is that when it’s at your back, you scarcely notice it. There were mornings when we’d wake up, the wind in our favour, and cruise through 50 kilometres before stopping for breakfast. But when the wind’s in your face, it makes you feel as though you’re riding on two flat tires up an inexorable, perpetual climb. We crossed the whole province of Manitoba in a fierce, hot southeast headwind. It was so strong at times that we’d have to lean into it; and when we passed a wind break and had a brief reprieve, we’d lose balance and narrowly avoid hitting the ditch. Leaving Arborg, we passed on the lee side of a field that was recently ploughed for fallow. The dust storm stung our faces and covered our right sides in a thick layer of black dirt that we were only able to remove by jumping into Lake Winnipeg some 15 kilometres down the road. Manitoba was so hard on us that, upon reaching the western border of Manitoba, even though it’s just an arbitrary line on a map, Mollie broke down and wept.
The relentlessness of wind is harder than the predetermined length of hills, but Canada certainly has imposing inclines that strike fear into the hearts of mortals. For example, from Revelstoke, British Columbia it’s a relentless 74-kilometre climb to the summit of Rogers Pass in Glacier National Park. We sat in a coffee shop in Revelstoke, warming ourselves by the fire – the night had been particularly wet and cold, even snowing at times, the night before in Three Valley Gap – and enjoying coffee and pastries, for hours, trying to psych ourselves up to take those first few pedals towards the pass. To this day, if one of us is stalling on an inevitable and unpleasant task, the other will accuse him or her of being a “Roger dodger.”
Eventually we ran out of excuses, and set out from Revelstoke. Before we got to the edge of town it started raining. Trucks would roar past and envelope us in a sludgy mist. It’s not particularly steep until the last two kilometres, but it just keeps steadily climbing and climbing – and as you gain elevation the air gets thinner, the rain gets colder, and you come to wonder why you didn’t do something normal for your honeymoon.
We summited Rogers Pass just as the storm broke. The clouds cleared in the mother of all mixed blessings: one hand, it afforded us a full view of the surrounding glaciers, resplendent in the evening light. But on the other hand, the clouds that had been holding in what little heat the earth was radiating all day were suddenly gone, and the valley filled with frigid air blowing down off the glaciers. Beyond uncomfortable, we were borderline hypothermic and had little choice but to seek a room at the Pass’ only hotel.
We approached the desk humbly; willing to sleep in a broom closet if that was all that was available. But learning of our travels and recent marriage, the clerk booked us into a fancy suite, and even sent us up a bottle of champagne! We cranked the thermostat and piled on extra blankets, and felt a little sheepish that night as we draped our soaking gear all over our slightly-too-classy accommodations.
The hardships we endured were truly hard. But without them, the softest moments might not have been appreciated, and we surely would have failed to recognize some of life’s simplest and best comforts.
A Good Partner Goes a Long Way
As many have said to us over the last decade: There’s no better way to get to know your new spouse than committing yourself to three months alone with each other, on a wild and challenging adventure. That sentiment is usually followed closely by “If your marriage can survive that, it can likely survive anything.
I guess it’s true that a trip like this can test, and put some degree of strain on, a relationship. But I feel that in many ways it’s easier to build a good relationship, and be a good partner, when you remove many of life’s externalities. Most problems arise in a relationship when people are afraid to face their issues, and so they avoid them, or mask them as something else, or run away from them. But when you’re camped in a willow thicket on the Alberta-Saskatchewan border, where is there to run? You can’t go to the bar with your buddies, or turn on the television to avoid a conversation, or even throw a tantrum and start breaking shit. It’s just the two of you, a whole lot of Canadian wilderness, and whatever you have to deal with; and if you don’t deal with it now it’ll still be there tomorrow. Ten years later, Mollie and I still deal with issues as soon as they come up, and that’s largely thanks to the things we learned about each other on our honeymoon.
Aside from building a strong relationship, it was great to have such a supportive travelling partner. We both had moments – thankfully never at the exact same time – when we were ready to throw in the towel and quit. Mollie’s biggest one came early on, at the base of “the Duffy” between Pemberton and Lillooet, British Columbia – a gruelling grunt of a hill that ascends more than a vertical kilometre over 13 kilometres of road. Mine came in the middle of Ontario, near a town called Rosseau, on a 35 kilometre stretch of construction where the road had been stripped down to gravel, it was pouring rain, and my bike was approaching total breakdown. In both cases, the strong partner supported the weak one, carried a little extra burden, showed a little extra love, and brought us both safely through to the other side. In retrospect, the things that almost break us frequently appear to be not so serious after all, but if you haven’t got someone to lift you out of that funk, it’s a lot tougher to get that perspective.