Switching Gears

No Sleep 'til Brighton

I'm typically quite lazy, averse to exertion both mental and physical. In a moment of fleeting honesty I might be compelled to admit that my true dream job would be a kind of hideous idleness, sloth in the Biblical sense. I would inhabit a state of decay and neglect, wallowing like a hog, or meandering aimlessly like a pastured beast. I was born ready for retirement.

It is in spite of this disposition, this gravity, that I typically find myself compelled to act. Impatiently, rashly, and with an inclination to spontaneous feats. This I suspect is the mindset of many of those who talk about "pushing themselves." It is a desire for self-overcoming that is never really successful but also never proven impossible.

The feat itself is far from pleasurable, it is an ordeal, it is self-inflicted suffering. One cannot live a life of endless ordeal, save for those who come to see all aspects of living as strife, which is a wholly separate matter. It is rather the aftermath of the ordeal endured that comes to characterize the life of the adventurer. It is the feat remembered, recollected, embellished in the telling.

Certainly there are those who would even go so far as to insist that it is for the sake of this life of embellishment that we subject ourselves to such trials in the first place. Put crudely: we act to have something to talk about. With this said, I submit to you an embellishment of a most gruelling ordeal, one which tested the very limits of the term "recreation."

The original plan was to bike to Toronto, my father and I. This was to be another stage in our grand plan of crossing the country in no particular order. It has been difficult with conflicting schedules to find time for long trips, so this year's venture was to be a short one. After a series of revisions and medical obstacles, I found myself peddling out of Ottawa alone on Friday morning, destination: Port Hope.

In what was perhaps not the best exercise of judgement, I had also decided to begin training in Tae Kwon Do again after an eight year hiatus. Thursday evening was my second class, and I may have over done it just a little. The ride to Bells Corners took quite some time, as I kept stopping to negotiate with various petulant muscles.

By the time I reached Ashton, however, the uprising had been stifled, and I was coursing across the idyllic countryside at a decent clip. I love the rolling hills to the west of Ottawa, the mix of corn field and spruce bog, the eccentric churches, the signs telling "government" to "back off."

The roads were lined with death, which is something you don't really notice when you're in a car. At 100 km/hr you only see the big-ticket roadkill, the main acts. You don't see the the minor players, extras in this macabre spectacle. Flattened frogs, severed snakes, battered butterflies, tatters of turtles, a mashed muskrat, vellum of vole. The porcupines were the worst, slumped in a halo of scattered quills, disembowelled by impact, their innards in a neat heap to the side.

The next day, labouring across Prince Edward County, I would see a pickup roll to a stop, its passenger, a woman in her sixties in the sweatsuit uniform of a vacationing pensioner, hopping out to inspect something lying in the middle of the lane. By a leg she would grasp it, and in Olympian stance, heave it with a half turn into the bush. I would watch and hope that the four-legged mess was a racoon, and part of me, the eternal ten year-old, would lament the missed opportunity of prodding it with a stick.

I stopped in Smiths Falls, struggling to pace myself. I didn't want to eat too much, to spend too much time sitting still. My lunch consisted of an energy bar and a few pepperoni sticks, washed down with diluted Gatorade. I paced the grounds of the park near the locks, taking some negligent photos of trees and the old bridge. I stretched some more, fed some bits of sausage liner to a seagull, and hopped back in the saddle.

Once you get into the rhythm, it's hard to get out, to slow down again, to go back to normal. In the course of 75 kilometres I had been transformed into a wanderer, a two-wheeled vagabond, disdaining all comfort and civility. I spat in the road as I waited at stop lights, panting like some kind of eager hunting dog, the stubble on my face greying with grit and dust.

At one point, passing through some small town with a name that ended in "corner" or "point" I saw a mother walking with a small boy, his arm barely long enough to grasp her hand. As I neared, she calmly transferred the boy to her other side, away from the road, empty save for myself, and glared at me with a mixture of scorn and uncertainty. I looked around for the saloon owner pulling his shutters, but all I saw was a bankrupt gas station with weeds where pumps once stood.

In the town of Portland, I saw a large sign by the side of the road: "Watersports: Introductory Lessons Available." I was reminded of the Tea Party movement, and their naive choice of event name in past years. A world without innuendo would be a dreary one indeed.

It was starting to cloud over, and the air grew damp. You could almost hear the humidity in the air, like a low bass hum, a purring white noise, by the time I reached Chaffey's Locks. The woman at the general store eyed my change with suspicion, craning her neck to peer through bottle-glass lenses from a stool behind the counter. I thought of the opening scenes of the movie Deliverance, the first twenty minutes, which are also the only twenty minutes that I've seen. My good-bye went unanswered as I took my bottle of water and left, it hung in the air for a moment before being swallowed by the oppressive silence of the store. I thought of the worms as I passed the bait cooler by the door; to be bait must be a horror, but in such a place even worse.

I took a wrong turn. It was an error in the GPS script that I had overlooked when I checked it against the map. I followed the directions and headed a good kilometre and a half down a galloping gravel track before realizing my mistake. The road ended abruptly at the top of a particularly steep incline. I swore loudly at the driveway in front of me, at the mini-van, at the cedar panelled cottage, at the stand of birch trees that rustled in the afternoon breeze.

All the way back down the lane I cursed the wheels that bore me, the sloppiness of my planning, the caprice of automated navigation, the Promethean folly of technological progress. I saved my foulest obscenities for the old iron bridge, completely unreachable, that had quelled by doubts about this path in the first place and lured me out of my way. My swearing became a mantra, each pedal stroke a four letter word. I was filled with a sense of the most livid self-importance, murderous at the loss of precious time like a desert traveller who spills his canteen. All this abruptly stopped when I noticed in the middle of one particularly vile stream of -ing's and -er's that I was passing a church rummage sale, that my ranting was evidently quite audible even to those of advanced age. The withering frowns of this cardigan-clad brigade shut me up, and I wheeled off with my shoulders slumped.

The land grew more rugged at this point. This was lake country, the area south-east of Frontenac park where you are either on a hill or in the water. The coming Fall had started to turn some leaves ever so slightly, giving the impression of an over-saturated photograph. In between hills, as I would cross a low bridge at a narrows, I would catch glimpses of the lakes, of lonely boats pulled up to shore, of solitary pines leaning too close to the shore. It all had the appearance of Tom Thompson knock-off, the kind of conservative take on landscape that you find in a shopping mall gallery. Not breathtaking, but certainly easy on the eyes, soothing.

It was darker now and spitting sporadically, just enough to cool me off. The Opinicon road was a poor choice. The absence of traffic, normally prized by cyclists, had the effect of removing any sense of time as I struggled to keep momentum. The road dragged on, past small farms nestled between lumbering granite protrusions and thick overgrowth. The animals ignored me, horses and cows, even the deer I came upon around a corner. They let me get within a few metres before reluctantly leaving the road and disappearing into the woods, as if only out of formality. The hills were steep and short, each one a challenge, each one disappointing on the other side. The bumpy frost-scarred asphalt prevented me from picking up speed, so that the downhill felt like the flats.

It was here that I started to have second thoughts, that the real serious doubt kicked in. I imagined my exhausted corpse being found in a ditch by a shocked cottager, my windbreaker pulled over my face in defeat. I worried that this was a second betrayal, that I was on another wrong road to nowhere, that twenty kilometres later I would find myself back in Portland, or at a dead-end with no cell reception and the coyotes closing in. Would they smell my exhaustion, the coyotes? Would they sense that I could barely lift an arm against them? Would I tumble from my saddle and injure myself, stumbling through the woods leaving a trail of blood from a seemingly superficial scalp wound?

I was broken by the time I reached the Old Perth road. I had sold my soul in oath, forsaken myself to the road. There was no sign at the intersection, I didn't even know if it was the right road for several more kilometres; it didn't matter, I just kept riding.

By the time I reached Perth Road Village I was out of water, but I had my second wind. This was the home stretch, the last twenty-five kilometres or so. I bucked up and pushed on. The road was smooth, the shoulder was good, and each car that roared past energized me just a little.

As I rolled through Inverary it began to rain, softly at first. I stopped to put on my raincoat. It started to really come down and my shoes filled with water, my shorts were soaked through, my eyes constantly blurring. I didn't care, this was the home stretch. The hills were bigger, grand sweeping climbs; I charged on, whistling strains of Beethoven's 9th.

The rain let up at the top of the hill outside of Kingston, as I pulled over to survey the city below. I rode down Division into town, beaming, smug like a cat with a mouse. Soon I was standing in the motel lobby, helmet in hand, a puddle forming at my feet. It was just after 6:30, I had left home at 8:30. The shower was amazing; I have never been so happy to toss a towel on the floor.

My good friend Adrian came to pick me up, it was raining again and it seemed a lot less appealing now that I wasn't wearing spandex. We destroyed a mound of Cambodian food, as I tried my best to ignore the growing pain in my knees. By the time I went to bed, after a few beers, I was truly knackered. I fell asleep clutching a pepperoni stick, a last minute attempt to load up on calories for the next day's ride.

I woke up in silence, five minutes before the alarm. A quick breakfast of C grade baked goods and watery orange juice and it was time to hit the road again. My knees were hurting. A sharp pain on the tops of the caps, like the skin was stretched too tightly over them. Otherwise I felt great, full of energy, well rested, strong.

The first 15 out of Kingston was rather bleak, but the moderately busy road lined with strip malls, gave way to a parkway winding between coves. It was overcast, and a thick drizzle was suspended in the air, rain too light to reach the ground. There was a light nagging headwind, which would dog me for the entire day. It was hard to get any momentum going, hard to get any power through my dodgy knees. Every incline slowed me to a crawl, the slightest resistance forcing me down to embarrassingly low gears. I skittered along, gloomy and apprehensive.

By the time I reached the other side of Bath I was ready for a break. It was only 10:20, but it already felt like I'd come eighty kilometres. I pulled into an empty park, one of the many fixtures on the Loyalist Parkway, which I'm sure is quite the lovely attraction when it's sunny and you aren't torturing yourself. The chip stand doesn't officially open until 11 o'clock. The man running it took pity on me though, and I sat in his awning sipping a Coke while he fired up the oil to fry me some chips. We talked about touring. He showed me photos of people who had passed through: strange bikes, solo Trans-Canada adventurers, a man with a green VW beetle and a crimson macaw. "Even parrots like are fries," he chuckled, speaking as much to himself as to me.

He told me about cycling in Florida, on an old converted rail bed there, told me that there aren't really any hills in Florida, that even an old guy like him can handle a 50 k ride on Sunday so long as he brings enough water. They stay in a camper on the back of the pickup, himself and his wife. They sleep in Walmart parking lots all through the states and nobody minds. This is not the case in Miami though, in Miami they were kicked out at four in the morning by an apologetic security guard who explained that too many poor people were trying to live in parking lots, that it was too complicated to distinguish between legitimate tourist squatters and the more unsavoury type. "Thing is, the lots are still just empty at night," he said, "and these folks need to sleep somewhere. Seems like it might make the sidewalks less crowded."

The chips were the best I've had in a long time, and I tore through them before the vinegar had even soaked in. I pressed the warm cardboard pouch to my knees, which felt amazing. I thought about staying there on the Astroturf with the sound of oil bubbling until someone came to pick me up, but realized that it was far too early to call it quits. I had a boat to catch. Time to move.

The road to Adolphustown was a nice ride, despite the wind and grinding joints. I passed the notorious Millhaven Institution and several foreboding industrial sites in varying degrees of operation. Ever now and then there were signs that the sun was trying to make an appearance, and this lifted my spirits a little as I trudged along at a blistering 17 km/hr.

I was just in time for the ferry to Glenora, rolling onto the boat as it finished loading. I love ferries, especially the kind that make short, almost trivial crossings; we should have more of them. I reached Picton a short time later, and the sun came out. By all rights this was an important landmark, perhaps even a good place for a break, but it was already very clear that I was running behind, and I was anxious about the long ride ahead. I allowed myself a ten minute break on the front steps of a convenience store, gorging myself on high-calorie food and caffeine.

Prince Edward County is beautiful. While the quality of some of its wines is dubious, the vineyards themselves are all quite vibrant, and lend a certain old world touch to the countryside. At the same time, the widening here of the lake to the scale of an inland sea gives all of the small towns a bit of a maritime feel.

It would have been a splendid ride, but my knees demanded my attention. At one point I stopped at the side of the road and slathered them with Tiger Balm. The muscle relaxant made them feel strangely cool in the afternoon sun, but only helped a little. I grimaced at curious pedestrians as I passed fresh produce stands, immune to the pull of their peaches and squash. A number of times I thought about throwing in the towel and retiring to a winery, blurring the pain with free samples.

In Consecon I admitted defeat. The shadows were growing long, there was no way I would reach Port Hope before dark. The wind had not let up. I texted the cavalry. Buoyed by the knowledge that a truck was on its way, I put in my best 15 km of the day. As I turned onto the 64 at Carrying Place the change of direction gave me a break from the wind, and I finally got moving.

I met up with Evan on the edge of Brighton, right outside of some kind of hot-rod race track. The drone of engines was horrendous, and the foul stench of fuel-rich exhaust was overwhelming. I quickly tossed my bike in the back and we fled. The half-hour drive made short work of what would probably have been another three hour ride, but I was happy to be done, to sit in the truck downing energy gels and tepid Gatorade, as the sun sank beneath the ridges of Northumberland county and a steady procession of tail-lights marked the steep hills ahead.