Monday, May 30, 2011

Giving Thanks

I still don't know why she slowed down. Maybe she was trying to pull over, even though there was nowhere to go, so traffic could cruise past. We headed south out of San Fran that morning, our bike tires gripped to the pavement as our legs spun round and round. On a narrow, curvaceous stretch of coast highway known as Devil's Slide, we clung to the white line as an impatient stream of traffic raced past us. Together we spiraled up and down the shadowy mountains which divided us from the sea. My sister Alisha led and I followed. We were flying downhill when abruptly, she braked. I tried to stop but my back wheel skidded, bike frame wobbled. I screamed, “NO! GO! GOGOGOGOGO!”

“What?! Go where?!” she hollered, the words torn from her mouth by the angry wind. A split-second later I had closed in on her, only a few centimeters of mountain air separated our bikes.

“MOVE! Just move!” I screeched, my voice crackling as my nerves began to break.

There was nowhere to go. Hit her and cause both of us to wipe out, skid into traffic and cause a lethal multi-car pileup sure to headline the evening news, or veer into the metal guardrail (it only came up to our knees) and hope it would protect me from flying hundreds of meters into the Great Pacific. Holy shit, I'm gonna die. Here and now. That's it, that's all.

But, as you may have supposed by now, I didn't break on through to the other side. I made it. I guess Alisha deciphered my screams and sped up. At the next pull-out we pushed our bikes up against the rail and I sat down in the rubble, needing to be reassured that we were safe, not in danger anymore. Just breathe. Thankful. Breathe again. Alive. Really, that's all that I could think about. I was shaken, stirred, rocked.

That was the last time I was truly scared. What I realized though, seated cross-legged on the edge of that cliff looking out over the Pacific, was that sometimes it takes nearly dying to appreciate really living. I felt an enormous wave of gratitude for being alive and in good health. Why, I began to wonder, did it take such a harrowing experience to realize how good I have it? How come I, and most people for that matter, put so much effort into pulling life apart, nitpicking the minor details, while completely ignoring the miracle of our own existence? We take the blood pumping through our veins for granted, and in doing so fail to see the outstanding brilliance all around us. Toes warm in wool socks, the majesty of towering cedar trees, the scent of brewing coffee and the soft fur behind a dog's ears. It's scares me how we've moved past showing appreciation for the simple things in life, instead dishing out criticisms for all the things that don't go our way and focusing on all the tiny irksome troubles that really, when you look at the big picture, mean next to nothing. Traffic jams, empty milk cartons, spitty talkers and painful hangnails. None of these annoyances matter if you're dead.

What seems strange to me is how often we forget that life has no guarantee. We make all these plans, sign up for years of college or university and then get excited for retirement. But how do we know we're even going to be around for it? I suppose, statistically speaking, it's pretty rare for a person to die in a freak accident, by some random coincidence or horrible luck, but it could happen. And nearly going over the edge at Devil's Slide reminded me of that. I realized that not only could I feel pain, but I could cease to exist. There are concrete consequences which can be achieved from making a wrong turn, so to speak.

This notion that death was the flip-side of life first came to me at nine years old. My half-blind spaniel, Ginger, walked off our balcony, crashing hard on the cement below. She died on impact. I discovered her when I ran under the stairs to grab my bike. It was a rough morning, I cried a lot, but most of all I remember thinking afterwords, What if that happened to me? What if I was the one lying dead, my parents the ones who discovered me and wept over my rigid remains? It was a scary thought, but I didn't dwell on it, and soon I'd forgotten my first brief encounter with existentialism.

But am I really thankful for my existence? After each of these experiences I reached a new level of awareness about my frailty, followed by deep appreciation for my own life. But the gratitude quickly faded. Sometimes when I'm riding the bus, I notice a creeping angst boil up inside of me. As I watch the condensation build on the window panes, the rain pelting down on the pavement outside, I become more and more pissed off about the lousy weather, about having to rush from school to work with no time in between, about being 26 and not knowing where I'm going in life. Simmer down Meaghan, I conscientiously tell myself, Just because you have no time, no money and no car doesn't mean you should be bitter. Just be happy to be here, right now. This is the only place you can be, and if you weren't here you'd be dead. So you should be grateful for that. But I feel like I'm feeding propaganda to myself. But, isn't it true? Shouldn't it be true? Wouldn't it be better to stop rating life as good or bad, depending on the moment, and just accept that it is what it is?

Acceptance is something I have a hard time with though. I think a lot of people do. Dissatisfied with your small breasts? Get a boob job. Sick and tired of your mediocre job? Work hard for that promotion. We're taught not to accept the conditions that we're given, but to improve, excel, and rise above. it seems that we love life when we're living it up, but disdain much of the time in between. Our society puts so much emphasis on improvement and achievement that we neglect to show gratitude for life, just the way it is.

I remember being in Newfoundland, and finding it surprising that everyone I met said grace before the meal. Just a few moments to pause, breathe, and think about the bigger picture. My astonishment faded quickly, and soon I began to wonder why it wasn't common practice to show gratitude for those tasty morsels, and everything else, which sustains us. Are we just too busy, think ourselves above giving thanks, or have merely forgotten how good we have it? Taking a look around the globe, it seems more than ever that access to nourishing food, clean water, and stable housing is privilege, not a right, of human existence.

So I'm thankful, for everything. And I'm grateful for that day when I nearly went crashing over the edge. Without realizing what I had to lose, I wouldn't have been able to see how much I have to live for.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Pedaling the Pacific Marine Circle Route (and then some)

Yaaaa! I hope you're all suuuuuuuuper stoked, cus my blog is back! I don't have any epic adventures planned for 2011 (as of yet...), but even though I'm working a real job, I still might do a thing or two worth writing about.

Last weekend I did a spur of the moment tour of Vancouver Island. Sometime on Friday afternoon I realized that I didn't yet have plans for May Long, and a cold fear gripped my heart. Why, Meaghan, are you not doing anything for the long weekend? Have you grown old? Lame? Are you wasting you life away on purpose? It's not totally true that I didn't have plans: I had a Raw Meat skate session on Saturday morning, and I was called in last minute to work on Saturday night. But still, I wasn't planning on leaving town, which struck me as odd. Last year I was gearing up to cross the country, and now, I was gearing up to drive to work. Lame.

Day One, Sunday May 21st

So I dusted off my tent and packed my panniers. I needed to break the cycle of mediocrity which has become my life. On Sunday morning at 6:45 I was awake, and by 7:20 I was gone; flying down the hill towards the Tsawwassen ferry terminal with my dad in tow. I rode along the dyke, Mud Bay and all its oceanic inhabitants to our left and a smattering of farm buildings and golf courses to our right. We hoofed it to the terminal, my heart rate climbing with anticipation as I felt the familiar crunch of loose gravel under my wheels. Patch kit? Check. Spare spokes? Check. Lube? Nope. I made a mental note to pick up a bottle once I got to the island and figured out where I was going. (My final route is outlined here)

We made it to the terminal with 15 minutes to spare. My pops let me draft off him for the final stretch, as there was a nasty headwind and he could see I was already fading with my loaded panniers (note: if there's one thing this trip has taught me it's that I need to get back in shape). After a perfunctory hug good-bye, he headed back home for breakfast and I boarded the Queen of New Westminster bound for Swartz Bay.

My initial plan was to ride to Cowichan Lake to visit my friend Graham and his pals at their cabin. This idea was thrown out after I discovered that the Mill Bay/Brentwood Ferry was out of service for the month of June, and I couldn't muster the physical strength to tackle beastly Malahat Hwy. I calculated my route to be over a hundred kilometers after short-cutting via the ferry, but since this was a no go (thanks a lot BC Ferries!), I had no choice but to tack on an extra 30 km of mountainous highway riding. So I tossed that idea out, and just kicked it along the Lockside Trail towards Victoria. Once I reached the boardwalk at Elk Lake I took a breather from my travels. With my info-center map spread out on the grass I used my finger to trace out possible routes from the endless network of paths, highways and byways (For those of you who don't know, the island has GREAT network of cycling paths, some on back roads and others on converted railways tracks. It's pretty sweet: minimal traffic, low grade, lots of trees. Perfect for newbie cyclists and those who prefer scenery to SUVs) I decided to try for the Pacific Marine Circle Route, with some slight modifications to avoid the traffic and congestion of the Malahat.

After I quick cruise through our splendid capital, I rode out on the Galloping Goose Trail. The path is named after the awkward and noisy gas rail-car which carried passengers between Victoria and Sooke in the 1920's. The train runs on converted rail bed from Victoria to Sooke Potholes through View Royal, Langford, Colwood and Metchosin. A world away from the noisy Island Highway, I let my thoughts tumble over like pebbles in the quiet surf as I made my way west. In Metchosin a patch of grass lured me upon it, and I collapsed, face first, for a much needed catnap.

When I awoke it was nearly six pm. Time to hit the road again. My body ached and my mouth was scratchy and dry inside. I struggled to get my feet in my pedal cages, then commenced to ride down the path like a lopsided drunkard. I was exhausted, over-exerted and craving sugar. I rode the Goose until it came to Matheson Lake, where I parked my bike and ventured down to the shore. With no one else around, I eagerly pulled off my sneakers and waded around in the chilly water. I read a short story about female wrestlers in Bolivia, cholitas, then stared at the sun until my eyes hurt and I saw tiny dancing geometric shapes once I closed them. It was time to move on.

I camped on the shores of Sooke Basin that night, in someone's backyard. Admittedly, it feels a little peculiar to wander up to a stranger's front door and ask permission to sleep on their property, but I've found that folks are generally welcoming and eager to help a lone cyclist or two. Sitting on a mossy log I chewed my granola bar (note: I didn't bring a stove with me this trip so you'll find that I eat really lousy food) and waited for the sun to set. Before long I was inside my tiny Hubba tent, sleeping bag zipped to my chin, the lapping waves guiding me to sleep.

Day Two, Monday May 22nd

I packed up camp before seven and headed up to Sooke Potholes. Leafy green ferns and yellow broom painted the landscape as the trail hiked up the canyon alongside the boisterous Sooke River. I crossed an enormous wooden trestle spanning the length of Charters Creek. A feat in engineering if I've ever seen one, I thought, the sound of thunderous water echoing up from far, far below. Once at the Potholes, I seized my second chance to marvel at the raging rapids as I mixed instant oats with mushy banana and trail mix for breakfast. This was so unsatisfying (and cold) that I opted to stop for a second breakfast at the Alternative Kitchen Cafe once I arrived in Sooke. This little place is, hands down, the highlight of Sooke. Home cooked food and self serve coffee in a teeny tiny restaurant with a friendly vibe. I bought a muffin for the road, then said good-bye to the Goose and took up the West Coast Road headed towards Port Renfrew.

I totally lucked out in the weather department. All day long the sun beat down on my sweaty face and thighs. I soaked up her heated love with delight, and prayed for more glorious sunshine in the days to come. RVs and pickup trucks trailing speed boats rolled by me as I cruised along the coast, taking in the magnificent beaches as they came. French Beach, Muir Creek, Jordan River, China Beach. The beaches along the southwest coast of Van Island are the epitome of rugged west coast beauty. The rain forest touches down to meet the sea, a band of driftwood, pebbles and sand making up the thin meridian between two ecosystems. I basked on sun bleached driftwood logs, letting the wind whip my bangs back and forth across my face like a set of windshield wipers in the pouring rain.

After Jordan River (the busiest spot on the coast between Sooke and Port Refrew-fish and chips stands appear on the land side while boogie boarders and surfers bob up and down in the sea) the roads curves up above the sea. Below, the Juan de Fuca Trail leads across pebbly beaches and through muddy paths to Port Renfrew, where the trail ends and the world famous West Coast Trail begins. The views are not so great from the road, but traffic is light and the topsy-turvy route keeps things interesting. There are no houses. Instead my eyes follow soaring eagles, wandering elk and curious black bears (eeeeek!) as my feet stamp out a never-ending rhythm on my bike pedals.

When I noticed a dampness, a soft pillowy moisture suspended in the hair and sticking to the hairs of my forearm, I knew that I had to be close to Port Renfrew. The road etches its way through dense bush, with ancient spruce and hemlocks towering overhead while ferns, skunk cabbage and salmon berry bushes make up the lower tier of rain forest. I can only imagine the wildness lurking behind the curtain of trees lining the highway.

Once in town, I rode past the fire hall and made a sharp turn down to Beach Camp, where I soaked up the last rays of the day before the sun sank behind the surrounding mountains. The day was nearly gone, but yet the the sky was still light. So I kicked it down the road to the BC Rec site at Fairy Lake. I made camp under a giant spruce, its branches weighed down by generations of moss.

Day Three, Tuesday May 24th

My cell phone hasn't worked since I left Sooke, so I got up with the sun. She's not so brilliant today, but she does a satisfactory job at keeping the rainclouds away, which is good enough for me. Logging trucks, stacked to capacity, rumble past me as I pedal inland towards Cowichan Lake. Since I care deeply about my own life, I exercise my best manners and move right off the pavement to allow the hulking giants to pass on the narrow switchback road. Clear cuts, an ugly but seemingly necessary part of our economy, are a common sight. Streams and bridges mark my progress, and after a few hours my stomach is telling me that it's time for my second breakfast. Right on cue, the road flattens out and I see the sign for Cow Lake. I pull into an all day breakfast place and order a plate with basically every farm animal and vegetable product on it. Oooh, and a coffee. I love coffee :)

From Cow Lake I took the Cowichan Valley Trail (another sweet multi-use, motorist free path) to Duncan. Part of the Trans Canada Trail, the path is rougher than the Galloping Goose, but still fine with my touring tires. Nothing but trees, trestles and gravel for the next few hours. I shot up and down the winding the back roads through Duncan, enamored by the grassy fields and colourful clapboard farmhouses. I whipped through downtown Duncan, then continue though Maple Bay towards the ferry terminal at Crofton. I figured that I could ride to Nanaimo and take the ferry home, or I could visit Salt Spring and take the ferry home. Salt Spring won out, mostly due to the fact that I knew of a bakery where I could find awesome cinnamon buns.

I arrived on Salt Spring Island a little past six in the evening. Funky sculptures and artist studios reminded me that I was no longer on the mainland. Or even mainland Vancouver Island. I crossed the island from Vesuvius Bay to Ganges Harbour and settled down on a boardwalk bench to eat my "dinner" of granola bars and bananas. I strolled around the harbour until sunset, my solitude intermittently broken up by random conversations with other travelers and island locals. I stealth camped for the night in a forest grove beside a little church, crashing hard after another long day on the road.

Day Four, Wednesday May 25th

I departed camp before any worshipers arrived, kick-starting the day with a bit of an island tour. I ventured north to Fernwood, where I poked at sea creatures living under the remarkably red dock, then looped back down to Ganges for cinnamon buns and pastries at the aforementioned bakery (the Embe Bakery-highly recommend it). The buns did not disappoint, and after an hour or so of munching out and journaling I kicked it to Beddis Beach. In my mind, some more quality beach time seemed like an ideal way to end this blissful little adventure of mine, but unfortunately, the sky god thought it would be a good time to water the planet. So I got wet, but it was fun. Sometimes I actually enjoy riding in the rain. I trans-morph into a salamander-like creature and the water becomes my natural habitat. I feel slimy and slippery and strangely at ease in the slick wetness.

Once I made it the beach, I did seek out shelter under an ancient cedar. From my vantage point under the tree I remained dry while watching the rain plunk down into the sea. I thumbed through my Sherlock Holmes book, listening to the gentle tumble of beach pebbles under the quiet surf and the chirpity chirp of flighty birds. I fell asleep, but was abruptly awakened by the wet nose of a curious labrador. It was time to head off to the ferry terminal anyways.

By now it was all out pouring. I arrived in Long Harbour soaked, did a quick strip into my dry clothes, then boarded a ferry bound for the mainland. It was a scenic sailing, but throughout its entirety I was plagued with dreadful thoughts about my ride home in the torrential rain. Sigh. But nothing could be done. I disembarked the vessel fully clad in my rain gear, booties done up snug and rain jacket zipped to the chin. Of course, these precautions did nothing to prevent me from becoming absolutely drenched, but they did make me feel as if I was well prepared for the inclement weather.

I pedaled without pause until I hit my front door step. Twenty six kilometers. I didn't see a soul on the dyke, not even a bird of flight. When I finally I arrived home, I tossed my bike to the ground and charged the front door, demanding someone take my photo. Reluctantly, Luca (our German couch surfer) ventured outdoors to shoot my dripping visage. And this is what it looked like:

All in all, the route from start to finish was a little over 350km.