Thursday, September 30, 2010

The Moose Incident

I really did want to see a moose. The same way a kid goes to a circus and says, "Daddy, I want to see the elephants!", I wanted to see a moose. All in all, I've been slightly disappointed with Canada's big game on this trip. No mountain goats in the Rockies, no bears in Northern Ontario, and no moose in Newfoundland. Well, I shouldn't say that. My time here hasn't been entirely devoid of moose:

Day One: Ate fresh moose steak, fried up with onions. This was at Limbert 's (the hunting guide) place, and it was delicious.

Day Two: Saw a couple of fellows riding on an ATV track. They honked and waved cheerfully at me, pointing to the sideways carcass of a freshly shot moose strapped on the back.

Day Three: Cycling towards Gros Morne National Park, I looked upon a cow (female moose) lying in the ditch beside the highway. Since there was no movement, I was able to deduce three things: first of all she was dead, secondly she was killed by a motor vehicle, and lastly she met her demise recently (likely within the last 24 hours) since there was no foul aroma. Morbid as it was, I hopped off my bike and wandered round the poor ol' girl a few times, marveling at her enormous beauty.

Day Four: Quartered moose in back of pickup truck spotted at Irving Gas Station.

Day Five, AKA, The Moose Incident!
Ok, so I was cycling out of Deer Lake on the TCH towards St. John's. Now, for those of you who are not residents of Newfoundland or Labrador, I recommend you take a look on google maps just to see how little settlement there is near the highway. Fact: there are only three cities in Newfoundland. Lots of small towns in between, but most of them are not on the highway, they're on the coastline. So evening was coming and I was still a few km from the next junction, which was still 10 km from the next town. I could have pushed on, except that highway had begun to run alongside a little brook and it was tempting me to come and dip my feet in. So I threw my bike to the side, scrambling down the slope and pushing flimsy birch out of my way until I came out at the bubbling water of Indian Brook.

I took off my shoes and tippie toed into the water (which was freezing), and found a nice flat rock to stand on and watch the twigs float by. Peace and serenity. Once my feet began to loose feeling, I clumsily wobbled out of the water and sat on a fallen truck, my legs dangling. I noted that the tree had been cut down by beavers: the gnaw marks on both the stump and the dettached trunk were pretty obvious. Gazing up through the yellow leaves over my head, I could see the sun was getting pretty low in the sky. By this point, I had wasted enough time to know that if I continued on I'd be racing again time to make it civilization before sunset. But who needs civilization anyways? I love people, but the brook was just calling to me, "meeeeaaaaaggghhhhaannnnnnnn...yoooouuu ccccaaaannn jjjjuuuuuusssst sssslllleeeeeeeepppp oooonnnn mmmyyy ssshhhhooooooooorreee"

And that's what I did. I wandered back up to my bike and dragged it down the slope, finding a nice thick tree to lean it up against. I looked around for a flat spot for my tent, threw it up and unrolled my sleeping map. Then I returned to my fallen birch tree and sat down to read until it the light from the sun faded entirely.

That night an icy frost covered the ground, but that's a side note. I noticed that when I set up my tent, the flat spot that I had chosen seemed to be part of a path winding alongside the brook. There was no human refuse, except for an old paddle boat with peeling blue paint and shrubs growing over it. I didn't really think much of this pseudo path with trampled branches, figuring maybe folks used to come down here to fish or something like that. I didn't even consider that maybe, perhaps, the path was created and used by animals, not humans.

Tucked into my sleeping bag like a caterpillar, my nose freezing, I fell asleep around 8:30pm. I awoke less than an hour later to a loud crashing in the bushes, accompanied by vocal grunting. My senses came back to me one by one, and I soon realized I wasn't dreaming. There was something headed straight for me, and making a whole lot of noise in the process. ggrrrunstn snort snoorrrg huuurng!! Suddenly, I connected the dots and realized that I was probably camped on the creature's path, blocking it's way! Stupid girl. Frozen in place, ears perked up, I listening in horror as the moose (I don't know what else would make this much noise, so I deduced that it was indeed a moose) approached. And, it was rutting season. From what I gather, that means the bulls are roaming around looking for female to ride and other bulls to fight. So here I was alone in the woods with a moose.

I sleep with a cannister of bearspray. It's come to replace my stuffed bunny Snowball and my dog Rexy. But bearspray doesn't stop a mammal the size of an Volkswagen from stumbling into your tent at night Luckily, I didn't have to worry. The moose stopped short and detoured through the brook around me. I let out a sigh of relieve. Then I made a mistake: I responded to a text from my Mom, asking where I was camped for the night. I tried to think of how I could word my response so that she wouldn't worry, but couldn't come up with much that didn't involve a flat out lie. So I told here the truth, "Hi Mom! I'm camped by this nice little brook...except I think there's a moose out here with me...I hear him crashing around my tent and making a lot of noise. Love you, Meg". Then I went back to sleep.

I woke up intermittently to hear grunting and crashing. Needless to say, I didn't sleep as well as I usually do. But no moose antlers came crashing through my tent, so I counted myself lucky. Sometime in the early hours of the morning I woke up to the thwack thwack splash of beaver tails in the brook. I though this was pretty cool. I pulled out my cellphone to see what time it was, and saw a few missed called from my Mom, as well as a series of increasingly concerned text messages. Oh boy...

So I've retracted my wish to see a moose. I don't want to see one anymore. I have any desire to see one dead in a pickup truck or crashing around outside of my tent at night. I'm content to take photos of the moose statues which stand nobly in front of the visitor information centers on the side of the highway.

Ridin' the Rock

I rode off the Caribou at 7:30 in the morning on
September 22nd, the first day of autumn and the day after Hurricane Igor struck. I had no idea what sort of disaster I was riding into, no map of the island, and no fellow cyclists on the ferry to team up with. I did, however, have an visual image of Newfoundland that I'd been creating in my head for the past year.

My sources have mostly been postcards and calender shots, as well as a few pages from this book about Canada that my friends Jackie so thoughtfully presented to me for my 25th birthday. And you know what? The 'rock' was exactly as I imagined it. It's strange to arrive someplace and feel like the landscape is already familiar; like the sneak preview for a movie that was spot on. The only place that I felt a similar dejavu was in Saskatchewan, every other place that I've pedaled through hit me as an unknown territory full of surprises. I mean, there's still plenty of surprises to be found in Newfoundland, but when I pedaled off the ferry and began my way down the Transcanada I was comforted by the enourmous mounds of rock, the strange misty bogs, and the brightly coloured houses built on the edge of the sea. I felt as if I was riding into a painting that I'd already seen and fallen in love with long ago.

The ferry landed in Port aux Basques, 906km from the capital in St. John's. I turned left and headed through town to see the community wake up before I started my trek eastward. Fathers walking their children out to the bus stop, taxis curving round the smouldering corners as they drove people to work, cats wandering in through windows after a night on the prowl. Weather worn faces of fishermen were illuminated in the windows of diners, the line up of vehicles for Timmy's extending well down the main drag. I passed all this and smiled to myself, realizing that I was not going to drown in the washout of Hurricane Igor; life in this part of the island continued as per usual. When I picked up my road map at the Visitor's Center I learned that the bulk of the damage was east of Gander: the Avalon Peninsula and throughout the Bonavista area were hit pretty hard. But the western half of the province, as well as Labrador, sustained nothing worse than high winds and a few toppled deck chairs.

But it was cold. A biting, sharp coolness attacked my face and knuckles. I shouldn't have been surprised, since practically everyone on the mainland had warned me that Newfoundland was a few degrees cooler than the rest of the Maritimes. So I tucked my fingers into my gloves (first time I've worn them for a while) and wrapped my bandanna around my ears to lesson the blows from the gusting wind before I set out amongst this strange rocky landscape. Leaving the Port, I found myself surrounded by rock and ponds, low thickity shrubs and stunted trees. Before long I cruised through Table Mountains (self explanatory) and the exceptionally windy Wreckhouse region. At an Irving gas station in the middle of nowhere, a construction worker gave me some worthwhile advice: "you've got to keep yours eyes open, cus the landscape here changes every fifteen minutes!".

On a bike, that translates to every hour or so, give or take...but I have found it to be true; nothing stays the same for long. The scenery moves from the sea to the shore, through wetlands and up rocky mountains. Away from the picturesque fishing villages which dot the coast, the inland of the province is made up of dense woods broken up by bodies of water (brooks, ponds, bogs, rivers). It's a pretty wild place here, and I love it :) I can cycle for hours without seeing a house, power station, or town. Side roads wind away from the highway to tiny coastal communities where boat was once the dominant form of transportation. During my first few days, I was leapfrogging these Navy fellas who were running across the province to raise money for the Children's Make a Wish Foundation. It was reassuring to see that I wasn't the only one crazy enough to be crossing the rock by human powered locomotion in early fall. It was also nice to have some familiar faces pop up now and again.

Another thing that I anticipated (and received) was a warm welcome by the friendly folks of Newfoundland. Prior to my arrival, everyone had been telling me that the final stretch of my journey would be a treat: "Newfies are the kindest folk you'll ever meet-if you can understand their accents". Now that I'm here, I can positively confirm both parts of this statement. Invitations for dinner, cups of tea, warm smiles, handfuls of plums, the list goes on. People here are curious and outgoing, always offering to lend a helping hand. I basically feel as if I could put my trust in any individual that I meet on the street; which is something I would never say about Surrey.

So each region, sometimes an individual village, will have it's own specific dialect. I can understand most folks, but the old timer fishermen or hunters? Forget about it! I need a translator. My first night I camped in someones backyard in St. George's. I covered about 14okm that day, and didn't sleep much on the rough ferry ride the night before, so I was pretty tired. I was grateful when Limbert, the man who gave me permission to camp on his lawn ("yes m'darlin', I don't see why not!") also invited me in for dinner. He was a stout built hunting guide with a few old scars on his face and thick, gnarled hands. And I couldn't understand a single word that escaped his lips. Well, maybe that's an exaggeration: I understood about 30% of what he said, I got the gist of things. So I was still doing better than in Quebec, and his teenage son Logan translated for me, which really helped. We talked about the moose hunt, their cabin up in the woods, snowmobiling, ice fishing and ATVing. They have this 8 wheeled thing that can go on land, water, or snow. I quickly realized that Newfoundland was an outdoors person's paradise, and slithered into my sleepingbag eagerly awaiting the rest of my adventure through the rugged province dangling on the edge of the North American continent.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Cape Breton Island and the Cabot Trail

If I could wrap up my experience in Cape Breton for you in a couple of phrases, they would be 'friendly people' and
'significant hills'. Luckily, I'm from BC, so the hills were nothing new to me. The people, however, never ceased to amaze me with their warmth and generosity. Throughout my entire journey, I've never met anyone who has been anything but kind and helpful...except for a waitress or two who has refused to refill my mug with coffee after my bill has been issued. But the folks here in the Maritimes, well lets just say that they've taken hospitality to a whole new level.

I rolled out of the Garbary's place in Antigonish in the early afternoon after spending the morning with Dolna and Julian at the Farmer's Market. I ate a slice of blueberry cheesecake that was to die for, bought some chocolate fudge, and chatted with a few of the vendors and friends of Dolna. Sunshine and tailwinds led me across the Canso Causeway, which connects the Nova Scotia peninsula to Cape Breton. I cruised up along the western coast, admiring the steep red banks dropping off into the sea.

My first night on Cape Breton was spent in the home of a woman named Sandra near the town of Port Hood. Her husband and son (both tuna fishermen) were out tagging the giants when I arrived abruptly at her doorstep sometime around sunset. I asked to pitch my tent in her yard, but instead was invited in for pork chops, a shower, and a good nights sleep in a real bed. Something I learned from my last bike trip was that the simple pleasure of stretching out on a bed is not one that should be taken for granted-I hope all you folks reading this know how good you have it!

Sandra's family members wandered in and out during the course of the evening, no one seeming to think that having a random Vancouverite on a bike journey over for the night to be anything out of the ordinary. I learned about tuna fishing and ATVing, and left the next morning with my belly full of food. I'm telling this story because the rest of my nights on the island were spent in a similar manner, except for one night in Ingonish where I slept in some old fella's workshop, and was left to my own devices for the course of the evening. More often than not, I left people's homes with fruit or veggies, sandwiches or baked goods, a few stories to retell, and farewell hugs. I feel that at this point in my life, I have at least three 'mothers' looking out for me, plus my real mom back home in Surrey.

So my goal was to cycle the Cabot Trail. Named after the Italian explorer John Cabot (who reached our shores in 1497), the route has been listed as one of the Best Drives in the world by Lonely Planet. The trail winds up and down the northern tip of Cape Breton, passing through the spectacular Cape Breton Highlands National Park. I was undecided over whether or not to cycle this hilly detour, but after encouragement from my fellow cycling friends (Toby and Kevin), I decided to give it a go. After all, when was I going to be back in this part of the world? It was now or never.

Definitely worth it; for the views, the people, and the challenge of climbing all those steep grades. The hill I'll remember most vividly was 3 km at 13%. I was standing up and pedaling for most of it, receiving honks of encouragement and thumbs up from drivers who were descending the switch backed road. I've been told that the park is stupendous in early October, when the leaves are all gold and red and the autumn sun hits the trees at that certain angle, making everything seem otherworldly. Even as I was making my way around the leaves were beginning to turn; the odd maple a brilliant rouge while most remained green with hints of yellow.

At the park entrance I talked my way out of paying the visitors fee. The parts of the highlands that were up a ways above sea level were enshrouded in a deep mist, giving the place an aura of unexplored mystery. I had my peepers open wide in hopes of spotting a moose, but alas, none were to be seen. The descents were fast and breathtaking, and I wished more than once that I was equipped with a helmet camera to document the brilliance which unfolded before me.

My journey from the Highlands into North Sydney was quicker than expected, with a crazy wind forcing me down the eastern coast from Ingonish. Brilliant red apples dangled from their branches like the shingy orbs of glass Christmas tree ornaments. I crossed the wildest bridge, way way way up over an arm of the Bras d'Ore Lake, all the while pedaling as fast as I could and praying that no big rigs would race up behind me and blow me over the side rail. My heart beat faster, and (for some unknown reason) the image of my sister and I outrunning (outpedaling?) the Mexican toll road gaurds outside of Tijuana floated to the surface of my memory. I smiled, wheezed a bit, and hoofed it over the bridge pronto.

I wound up taking the eight hour night ferry to Newfoundland a day or so earlier than I expected to. Little did I know that earlier that day, while I was experiencing blue skies and heavy winds, the island of Newfoundland was being devastated by Hurricane Igor. It wasn't until about 4:00 am, when I wandered into the lounge because I couldn't sleep with all the side-to-side rocking, I saw the news reports. Cellphone video clips of the untamable waters, wicked winds toppling trees, flooding basements, overturning RVs. I suddenly came to realize the gravity of the situation. I was riding into the wake of a hurricane...

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

countin' my pennies

My hit counter thing-a-majig is showing that people actually read this thing, unless my mom just logs in a dozen times a day and that's what is bringing the count up. But assuming she's not, I'm pretty stoked that people care about where I am and what I'm doing :)

At the moment, I'm in North Sydney waiting for the ferry to take me to Port aux Basques, Newfoundland. I bought instant noodles from the dollar store (4 for a buck!), filled my thermos with hot water from the coffee machine at the gas station, then headed down to the docks. I dumped the noodles into the hot water, tossed in chopped carrot and green onion, and sat cross-legged on a picnic table, loitering at the wharf while the moon came up with Atlantic Vision (one of the ferries) in the foreground. Currently I'm chilling out in the public library, charging my ipod and until a few moments ago was reading a Calvin and Hobbes anthology.

Crossing the country has made for an unbelievable summer. It's not over yet, but I've gained quite a bit from the experiences I've had. I'm going to open up the vault (ha, what vault? Everyone knows I'm an easy cookie to crack) and share a couple things that might make other vagabonds, cycling nomads, or just shoe-string travellers lives a bit easier...and by easier what I really mean is: "these are things I've learned that have enabled me to travel far and spend little"

1. Libraries: They're truly amazing resources. It wasn't until I moved to Terrace for the summer that I actually appreciated all greatness they have to offer. Free internet, movie rentals, CD loans, washroom facilities and water fountains? Amazing. Outlets to charge your electronics, stacks of magazines and newspapers. Oh, I forgot to mention they're full of books that you can just pick up and read. On a cold, wet day on the road, there is no finer place for me than inside a library.

2. Subway: All Subways have cold water on tap. Once I discovered that they don't really mind if you just wander in, ask to fill up your bottles, and leave, I was able to stop using restroom tap water for my bottles. And, you know it's not stinky well water that's going to give you diarrhea. Bonus: they also have ice. Plus, with an accidental slip of the finger, you might get fruitopia instead of water-not that I'm advocating this or anything.

3. "Oh, refills are free, right?" I tend to use this line anytime I have doubts of whether or not the refill is going to be free. Specifically at coffee shops. Give'm a little smile (perhaps a flirtatious wink?) and the barista will usually go along with it, and voila! Two drinks for the price of one :)

4. "Do you know anywhere I can pitch a tent around here?" This just opens up a whole world of possibles. People might suggest a nearby beach, picnic area, the soccer pitch, their backyard, their neighbors orchard, behind the firehall, ect. ect. It's a great way to avoid campgrounds, and not that I'm against campgrounds, but straight up: this trip would not be possible if I was paying $10, 20, or 32 (Ontario provincial parks are expensive places) a night just to lay my head to rest.

5. Visitors Centers: Great place for regional info (obviously), as well as water, washrooms, sometimes showers, internet access, and maps, usually free of charge. Whenever I enter a new province or city, the first thing I do is follow the boxy question mark signs to the visitors center. Staff are always really friendly, helpful, and full of awesome advice.

6. Peanut butter: It goes on anything, it's full of calories, and it's delicious (assuming you're not one of those unfortunate few with a nut alergy.)

Friday, September 17, 2010

Rainy days in Antigonish

Antigonish, Nova Scotia.
Sitting in the Garbary's cozy kitchen with a mug of orange pekoe by my side, I'm thankful to take this day to rest. Surrounded by ripening tomatoes and pumpkins, fresh garlic and dulse (dried red seaweed), rose hip jam and bowls of basal waiting to be turning into pesto, I feel right at home. I was going to ride, but Dolna (Mother of the household) insisted that I could stay put if I wasn't feeling up to venturing out into the sheet of rain currently blanketing the sideways, roadways, and lawns.

Oooooh, it's raining harder now; the wind blowing the falling droplets so they pelt against the house at a 30 degree angle. And I'm warm and dry in the home of a friendly Maritime family. From what I've experienced these past few days, I think that the rest of my journey is going be influenced more and more by the weather. I'll have to accept taking a day or two off when it's wretched out, and riding hard when it's sunny and the wind is at my back. My pace might be slower, but I also foresee the exchange of many stories and thoughtful conversations in my future. Poor weather, after all, is what brought me into Isabelle's home the other day.

So I met Rachel while she was working at the bakery on Mainstreet, Antigonish. I had just arrived in town after fighting the winds round Cape George, and parked my bike as soon as the scent of fresh cinnamon buns hit me. Rachel, a girl of 20 with and a passion for living and beautiful blond dreads, was working behind the counter. We got to talking and after a few minutes, I was invited back to her place for the evening. So I roamed around town on my bike, checked out the university (green ivy working its way over the red brick walls) and met up with her again at 5:30.

I parked my bike in the living room, amongst the piles of records and shelves of books.
"Mom, I'm home! And I've brought a friend!"
This was when I learned that I wasn't the first traveler who has been invited back to the Garbary house; apparently Rachel has a habit of 'picking up' folks at Tim Hortons (where she works in the mornings) and bringing them back home if they need a place to stay for the night. Awesome.

We ate a glorious meal of squash and veggies, talking excitedly about Rachel's future travels to New Zealand and Thailand and reflecting on my past travels there. I slept inside and stayed dry, cuddled between a fluffy duvet and soft sheets. The next the rain started coming down hard. In the morning while Rachel was serving donuts and bagels at Timmy's, Dolna invited me to stay for another day so that I wouldn't have to cycle in the storm. So that's what I did. I feel especially blessed to get to spend this time in a family home, because after nearly four months on the road, I'm starting to miss my home just a little bit. But to know that on the other coast, far from Pacific that I know and love, I've found folks that treat me (and worry about me!) like one of their own, well I can't adequately put into words how special it is. I can just stay that everyday I wake up grateful to be able to continue this great journey of life.

On to Cape Breton!

Mademoiselle Isabelle

I was cycling from New Glasgow to Antigonish via route 245, the scenic but much longer alternative to the Trans-Canada. I rode with the Northumberland straight to my left, fields of swaying corn to my right, passing through the tiny towns of Merigomish, Brownsville, Doctors Brook and Malignant Cove, hardly visible as dots on the map. No gas station, library, or town halls. Just a cluster of houses along the road, a church, cemetery, and maybe a general store/cafe. I breezed along with ease, the fierce wind pushing me forward as the patches of blue sky overhead brightened up the crops. As the day wore on, a contagious cloud cover blocked out nearly all the sun's rays and the wind began to whip and tear in this direction and that, so instead of assisting me on my quest to Cape George it was grabbing, pulling, and swerving me all over the road.

I also realized that I didn't actually have much to cook up for dinner. I didn't have a place to sleep yet either, but that was of little concern to me. Not long after I had these thoughts, I glimpsed a painted sign for fresh veggies. Seeing my chance to find something for dinner, I veered down the gravel driveway, curving away from the road and into view of row upon row of flourishing veggies beside an old house overlooking the sea. Orange flowers, their pedals spread out wide and heads pointing up to the sky, dotted the orderly rows of beets, chard, carrots, peppers, herbs and greens. A little face appeared in one of the windows, and waved me in excitedly. I twisted open the old-fashioned door knob and walked into a world of delight.

Bag upon bag of freshly picked vegetables lined the side table, garlic hung from the rafters, and the smell of fresh rosemary hung in the air. Isabelle, I learned, was packing up her clients' bags of vegetables for Friday afternoon delivery. I stood in awe for a moment, my senses taking in all that was going on in this dimly lit room. I bought some carrots and tomatoes, the rain began to fall, Isabelle invited me to wait it out over a cup of tea in the kitchen, and I ended up spending the night on her futon. We cooked and ate and shared the stories of our hearts. The next morning when I was 15km down the road at the lighthouse, I realized that I had forgotten to pay for the veggies. So this is the story of Mademoiselle Isabelle, a lively woman from France who has found what she was searching for in life. Isabelle has the tanned skin of someone who's spent a lot of time outdoors, and the wild, choppy hair of someone who's free from the restraints imposed by societal norms. I've relied heavily on quotations here, and I realize that there's no way I've got all of what she said down word-for-word, but it seemed to be a more authentic way to tell her story than to paraphrase all of it in my words.

Isabelle immigrated to Montreal from France after finishing her college education,
"I wasn't meant to live in Europe, you know? I had always known it. There's just too many people, not enough freedom or space. Canada, woooooh! Well the wide open spaces, that's what attracted me to Canada."

But Montreal, it seemed, was too similar to France, and Isabella was still not wholly satisfied,
"I was working at a desk job, you know, in an office, blah blah blah. And I got to thinking, 'if you are going to immigrate somewhere, you've got to make a BIG change, not a slight one', so I jumped on an opportunity to relocate to Saskatoon, Saskatchewan for the summer. That's where I really got to experience Canadian culture, appreciate the HUGENESS of the country. And I loved it! I loved the skies, oh the skies! The way the colours change at sunset, the stars that come out at night."

After her stint on the Prairies, she was back in Montreal, but left for Latin America, being unsatisfied with the way things were going. She shared with me how the strongest memories are those of people, and not landscape: "The landscape is important; it may be beautiful and amazing and surely it will always be part of your travel experience. But, I find what really sticks, the memories that last, are the ones with people. When I was learning Spanish in Venezuala, I don't remember the place so much as the people. I stayed with a homestay family there, and the little girl took me to the market. And there we walked around together, and she pointed out the names of the vegetables and this and that. Those are the kinds of things I remember more strongly, not the landscape."

This hit a note with me, for during this journey I have enjoyed the landscape immensely, but always find that my happiest and most memorable experiences are more focused on the folks I've met along the way or the people I have traveled with. For instance, the first day cycling with Toby and Dave, we found a meadow to camp in and sat on a cliff overlooking Lake Ontario, our legs dangling freely over the edge. We cooked up dinner and chatted, all the while watching in awe as a red moon came up over a nuclear power plant across the little bay. The moon rose higher, and hung suspending in the night sky casting a shadow over the water that Toby described as "incredible, might I even say, sexy?".

This experience was awesome because it is something that the three of us shared, and will always remember. If I was alone, watching the moon come up and had no one to talk to, no one to lean on and whisper in a hushed voice, "wow, can you believe we're watching this?", I don't think the experience would be as powerful as it was for me.

Isabelle traveled for years, wandering around Central and South America, experiencing different ways of life and learning more about herself as she learned the language. But after five years, she felt lost. "I didn't have a home!" she exclaimed, "France wasn't my home anymore, and I hadn't been back to Canada for so long I didn't feel like that was my home any more. I really felt that I wanted to be grounded, to put down roots somewhere. But I didn't know where to go."

So she hopped on bike and pedaled out of Montreal. Stopping here and there, exploring rural Quebec villages and helping out with peoples gardens and in cafes and wherever she was needed, she made her way around the tip of Gaspe and into the Maritimes.

"I really thought I was meant for the West Coast, but somehow, I found my home here on the East. You see, what happened was this: I arrived on my bike one day, and cycled right through this area. I pedaled up to Cape George, saw the lighthouse, but suddenly realized that I could not go on! It was getting late in the day, and if I kept riding I would round the corner and miss the sunset. So, I pedaled back down the hill and camped, not too far from where we are right now. I've never done that before; turned around. But I did, I watched the sunset, and the next day while I was in town I spoke to someone and they said that there's a really good place to camp by Doctors Brook. So, I went down there. It was a beautiful place! It's where the flowing water meets the sea, there's little beach and it's just lovely. So I camped there for a night. Then the next morning, I packed up my things and got on to my bike to leave, but found I couldn't. I just couldn't leave this spot."

"So I just stayed there. Each day I would pack my things on my bike, ride off, then wind up back at the Brook by sunset. I couldn't leave. This went on for a few weeks, and I became a bit of a novelty around town! Everyone knew me, because of course they were curious about some girl on a bicycle camping down by the water every night. So one day, someone said to me, 'can you house sit for me?' and I was like 'sure, I can do that', and I knew, I just knew that this is where I had to be."

"I started looking around for a place, and what do you know, this house (the one we're in right now) was just put on the market. I went to look at it, and I bought it. It wasn't easy, finding work and making this place my home. It's a small community, not like the city where there's jobs everywhere. But I did it. First I taught French, because it turns out that the language is really in demand around here. I did others things as well, but I was like, 'this is not for me'. I need to be active, doing things, not sitting all day."

"So one year, I planted this garden. And I had too many vegetables! Waaaaay too much stuff for one person, so I gave the extras away. And I thought, 'hmmmmm, maybe I could grow vegetables,'. So the year after that I tried it out; I only had a few clients. Now I have over thirty. So that's what I do: I grow vegetables, and I love it."

And I realized that Isabelle, sitting across the table from me and telling me this story as she poked her fork into the roasted beets and shallots and potatoes, is alive. She is just totally alive with energy and life, and I feel like there's something passing between us, something unseen but nonetheless it's there and we're both experiencing the connection.

"You know, everyone wants something different in life. For some it's a respectable job, others it's love, marriage, or a big family. Me? I just want to make my heart happy. And this, using my hands and growing plants and feeding people? This is what makes my heart happy. If you told me 10 years ago that this is where I would end up, that this place, this tiny dot on the map in Nova Scotia is where I will set down my roots, I would not believe it. But, I am here. And I love it."

I don't know what I'm going to do in my life. I have no idea actually. But in looking at Isabelle, I saw a possible trajectory of myself. I thought, "this could be you Meaghan. Someday, you might wind up growing veggies and living in a cool old house painted a dozen different colours with fresh food everywhere and the artwork of your friends hanging on the walls."

There are a million different things that I could do in life, and this is but one of them. The infinite possibilities of my existence. Exciting, although the uncertainty of it all is also kind of overwhelming at times. But in talking with Isabelle, I realized that what I need to do is let my heart be my guide, and eventually everything will settle into place.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Zigzagging Nova Scotia

Last week I took the ferry from Prince Edward Island to Caribou, Nova Scotia.
This ferry ride was the 7th of my trip, and the voyage itself was by no means incredible. The weather was kind of drizzly and cold, the scenery of the Northumberland Straight pleasant but not knock-your-socks-off (crossing the Saguanay, man that was outstanding!), and the ship pretty much average in every way. Except that I met a couple of lively retired ladies, Mary and Elizabeth, who made the journey both fun and entertaining. They were returning to Mary's home in New Glasgow after spending the weekend on the island visiting friends on the east coast, not far from where I stayed in Georgina's back yard in Murray Harbour.

"We had a wild time!" Elizabeth exclaimed, "Stayed up until one in the morning drinking wine in the kitchen!"
"Oh we laughed and we laughed!"
Mary added, "Telling stories about how things were back in the day. I laughed until my stomach hurt!"

And all the while I'm smiling to myself, because their idea of a good time is exactly the same as my idea of a good time. Suddenly, I felt a bit more at ease with the idea of growing older (because there are times when the thought of being out of my 20's terrifies me), and knowing that some things in life don't have to change. Perhaps this also has something to do with what Elizabeth said to me, "I'm not old. Each year I get older, but I'm not old, not yet!". Later I found out that she is 76, and I never would have guessed it. Her bright eyes, cheery smile, expressive storytelling, and stylish short gray hair denied any sign of being 'old'.

So perhaps I too will refuse to grow old, and continue to ride my bike into the setting sun even after my legs have become veiny and wrinkled and mottled with age spots. And then I'll arrive at an old friend's doorstep, change out of my tired worn spandex into something more comfortable and we'll share a bottle of wine as the moon rises over the sea, and laugh about the way things used to be.

Once the ferry docked in Caribou I said my farewell to Mary and Elizabeth and took the backroads through Pictou and on to Truro, stopping for the night at Nicole and Darrin's place. Their friendly welcome, high energy dog Shadow, maritime-y bathroom (with lighthouses and ships and blue walls galore!), and their stories of Terra Cinque, Italy will be what I remember them most for. I continued along the old highway to Halifax, where I experienced a momentary breakdown upon my arrival in this bike-unfriendly city. After I gained my bearings and figured out what side of the water I was on, I reattached my head to my shoulders and found my way to Katrina and Steve's place (friends of a friend in Montreal) in the North End of town.

For four days I hung out, wandering through the harbourfront and the windswept parks and the steep sloped streets of downtown Halifax. For four days, I spoke with Haligonians and Capers and played crib and learned about the good, bad, beautiful and ugly of the city. Katrina told me about the open mic night a few blocks from her apartment, held in the living room of some folks whose neighbors happen to be the liquor store and thus don't mind the racket. I wandered into houses, coffee shops, apartments and flats and heard stories of buskers and exes and crazy people with samurai swords on buses. It was actually kind of hard to get up and go after spending so much time in Halifax, and I finally understood what Katrina meant when she said to me on my first night, "Halifax is home to travelers; the kind of people who say they'll never settle down in one place? They wind up in Halifax.".

So rather reluctantly I stitched up my torn panniers, bought a pair of pants from MEC, and pedaled out of the city through Sidney Crosby's hometown of Coal Harbour. As I faced off against angry headwinds along the south coast while pedaling east toward Cape Breton Island, I wondered (just for a moment) why I hadn't just ended my journey in Halifax, found a job in some coffee shop or bistro, and planted myself there for a while. But by nightfall, I was back in the groove, and remembered that my mission was incomplete and the roads ahead of me were vast and rich with beauty and unknown possibility. The tiny coastal fishing villages, the inlets which reached deep into the land like craggily old witches fingers, the smell of the salty air. I was in love again with the open road.

I slept that night in a mock fishing village, which was actually a museum. I munched down a nutella-banana sandwich, sat on a picnic table contemplating the day's ride, tossed my food pannier up on the roof of an outhouse, and crawled into bed before nine. My tent was still damp from when I packed it up in the rain on PEI, so crawling into it was no treat. During the night, I awoke to the "crunch crunch crackle crunch" of branches braking under the feet of small mammals, and didn't fall back asleep until the ruckus in the bushes died down. Skunks? Raccoons? Who knows.

The next morning, I continued east until Sheet Harbour, ate a most delightful club sandwich (buried under a mountain of crispy fries), and shot off through the interior of the province towards the north coast. There was nothing in the way of civilization along route 374, which kind of suited me well. I enjoyed the low grade slopes, the dense woods lining the road, and the little lakes and streams which I spied occasionally off on either side. A few cars passed through each hour; once in a while I heard the low rumble of a logging truck coming my way. The remoteness reminded me of Northern Ontario.

I came out of the 374 in New Glasgow, where I was fortunate enough to stay with Mary from the ferry and her husband Allen. I had the pleasure of their company, a delightful meal of pork chops, and a comfy bed to snooze in for the night.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Backyard Camping

About a week ago Toby flew out of Charlottetown, leaving me once again as the solo female cyclist that I started this journey as. I'm definitely going to miss his daily science lessons and quirky eating habits (does anyone else you know buy a litre of chocolate soy milk, then drink it straight from the carton before leaving the grocery store parking lot?). Alone on the road, I quickly realized that I had a bit more to time to think, read, and write in my journal. I've also had the opportunity of meet a few interesting individuals, since strangers are a bit more willing to approach a single traveller, and I as a single traveller am more likely to ask for the help of strangers. For instance, now that I'm on my own I don't feel quite as comfortable camping out in the bush, so I've taken to asking folk permission to pitch my tent on their lawn. Funnily enough, this strategy hasn't quite worked out as planned, and instead of setting my tent up on the back acres of stranger's properties, I find myself being invited into their homes and given a bed to sleep on and breakfast in the morning. On only one occasion did I actually set my tent up in some one's lawn, of which the following is sort of an account of.

One of the most memorable characters I met on Prince Edward Island was kind and gentle elderly woman named Georgina. Born and raised on the east coast of the island, not far from Murray Harbour, she's now in her 80s. What struck me most about her when we first met was how soft her wrinkled hands were, and how much shorter than myself she was.

Myself, as well as her 60-something year old nephew, were staying in her backyard, although Gary (the nephew) and his wife Gloria were residing in a spacious RV and I was stuffed into my single person tent. Anyways, I was lucky enough to arouse the curiosity of these three individuals (all whose names happened to start with the letter 'G'), and found myself invited in for a cup of tea. We sat in the cozy living room, with pictures of young grandchildren looking down on us from the fireplace mantle. I shared some of the details of my trip, and they told me a bit about country life. It seems like life on PEI has changed over the past 50 years, just like everywhere else I guess. Farming has become increasingly mechanized, people have left the small towns to move to the big cities, and kids are a bit reluctant to follow in the footsteps of their parents. But in talking to Georgina, I felt like I was stepping back in time, or that the past was walking forth to greet me. Glancing around the room, I couldn't help but notice an intricate quilt resting on the corner of a chair. When I asked complimented her on her quilt work she responded with a twinkling eye and a subtle smile, "Oh yes, I've won a few ribbons" and then told me about the old country fairs and the pieces she entered in the contests.

Although a little hard of hearing, Georgina was still sharp as a knife, with the memory of a fox. Gary and Gloria spent hours with her, listening to stories about the days of old and trying to piece together what life was like on the island before they were born.

Being one used to real food, and not the overly processed prepackaged stuff that makes up most of the stock in the grocery isles, Gloria had come prepared to help Georgina through the winter. Boxes of canned peaches and plums lay on the floor in the living room, waiting for someone to pack them down to the pantry for storage. "Round this part of the world, folks don't go for store bought bread," Gary informed me, "they still bake it themselves, although Aunt Georgina is getting a little too old for all that, so her friends and neighbors come by with their homemade loafs".

The next morning we are toasted raisin bread for breakfast, and I savoured every bite of the bread just as I savoured every moment of our conversation. Good food, I think, is one of the simplest ways to happy living. The meal I shared with the "three G's" reminded me of all the other excellent home cooked meals I've eaten on this trip, and I was thankful that I can find such supreme pleasure in the process of cooking, eating, and sharing stories. My mind jumped through time and space and I had a flashback of Toby, Ian, Ayla and I, all perched on her sloped roof at midnight eating home baked pizza and listening to the sounds of the Blues Fest in Thunderbay. Nothing spectacular happened that night, although it was beyond a doubt a magical and fantastic evening. The process of nourishing ourselves provided entertainment enough, and my memory of the four of us dining above the city and under the stars, with plates on our laps and wine glasses balanced precariously on the windowsill will never fade.

On a completely unrelated note, I had the pleasure of strolling down a carpeted path through the woods! I was sleeping in the camper van of Gene and Bob, a couple of awesome folks from the tiny town of Rock Barra on the North Shore of the island. In the morning before I left they took me out for a pleasant stroll through the path that Bob had cut through the bush out to the beach. Their energetic son William, as well as their stick-obsessed dog Rover joined us and we went forth as a merry troupe into the morning sun. Our route took us through the forest, across bridges, alongside the pond, over sand dunes, and back through a carpeted path to their property. It was something straight from the pages of Alice in Wonderland, and I loved every moment of the excursion with these friendly Islanders whom I hardly knew :)