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.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

the end (for now)

Ok ok, so I realize that it's been a while since my last post. I dunno, I guess I just couldn't figure out an appropriate way to end the story of 'nomadic cyclist from the west coast pedals across her homeland, experiencing firsthand the wonders of Canada'. There's sooo much left unsaid! But just now I realized something critical: the story doesn't have to end here. Although the final moments of my XCanada bike tour (and subsequent journey back home) have already played out, this won't be the last time Meg rides here bike across incredible expanses of terrain and is greeted by the open arms of humanity. The world is simply amazing. If you don't believe me, just get on a bike :)

So how did I make it home? Well, as I wrote last month, I hitched off Newfoundland, then took a couple of buses to Bathurst, NB. I hopped on a train to Quebec, then spent a most of my time riding greyhound buses, navigating my way westwards across Ontario and through the Prairies, visiting Austin in Montreal and landing at Toby's place in Edmonton just in time for the first snow of the season. I realized that summer was officially over, and that I would have to get on with my life now.

This is kinda where I got stuck, and thus partially to blame for my lack of posting in recent times. What now? Perhaps I'll return to school, learn Spanish and take some creative writing courses. Or, I could embrace winter, work at a ski hill, and catch snowflakes on my tongue. Alternatively, I could use my degree to get a real job, start earning a salary, and join the ranks of society who don't vacation more than two weeks a year.

But, I did non of the above. I wound up back at the roller rink, working late nights and drinking copious amounts of coffee. I've been taking my strange deer-like dog Rexy for daily adventure walks through the park and down to the ocean. Together we meander the familiar winding paths, admiring the giant golden maple leafs. I've been catching up with friends and relatives, and taking full advantage of having a fully stocked kitchen at my disposal (thank you Ma and Pa, for welcoming your vagabond daughter back home, time after time!). My current challenge is simply trying to take in all that I've learned this summer and use it to live out my own life in a way that satisfies my soul.

In December my brief stint at the rink ends, and I'm taking off for warmer climates. First I'm heading back to Edmonton-to get a taste of what the word 'cold' really means. Then I'm flying out to chill with some friends in sunny San Diego-can hardly wait to hit the surf with Sam, bake up some cookies with Karen in the kitchen, and down a few cheap American beers with Kevin. Then I'm blasting off to meet the family in Maui for Christmas. I know, you're probably thinking "hard life, kiddo", but hey, somebody's got to do it! I'll be ringing in the New Year, and the my 26th birthday, barefoot on a beach with a papaya in hand.

As I've said before, for me, travel is a transformative and life-changing experience. Bike touring all the more so. Propelling yourself forward with the strength of your own muscles, striping down your belongings to the bare minimum, constant exposure to the elements, chance encounters with folks on the road, and getting to know the entity who lives inside the body (my mind? my soul?) are all reasons that I choose to bike. I think of it this way: as a driver in a car/passenger in a train/customer on a bus, you're like a person at a museum taking a look at a painting. Now, hop onto a bike (or tie up those hiking boots) and you become much more than a mere spectator-you become part of the painting. That's why I totally dig cycling-because you get to be inside the painting-and the 360 degree view is pretty sweet.

So I plan to re-ignite my blog when I take off again on two wheels. I don't know when I'll hit the open road, let alone have the slightest inkling as to where that paved (or unpaved) expanse unfolding ahead of me will lead. But, I can feel it will be good :)

Check out and if you're still craving awesome biking stories. I met these folks in Baja California about a year ago, and they're still going. Hanna's photography totally rocks my socks.


Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Thanksgiving in Madran

I took a bus to Bathurst, arriving at the terminal on the afternoon of Thanksgiving Sunday. With no baggage (remember it had failed to make it aboard ship) I really felt like I was embodying the spirit of a traveling nomad: free-spirited and in search of adventure. Auntie Rita picked me up from the terminal, and then we cruised back to her place in Madran. Madran is only a half hour from Bathurst but it's sort of, hmmm, out in the country. Imagine old wooden fences, houses set back behind tall maples, chip seal roads, horses and dogs-that's Madran.

The following Monday we celebrated Thanksgiving. Last autumn my sister and I were cycling the Pacific Coast; we spent Thanksgiving in a windstorm, camped in the backyard of a woman who ran a thriftstore in Ilwaco, WA. For dinner, we splurged on a brick of the finest chedder and cooked it over a pot of swirly pasta with fresh chopped veggies. Even without fine accouterments, I still found I had a lot to be thankful for: good health, good company, good food. This year, however, I felt I was blessed with much more on the holiday.

Rita's place served as the gathering place for the feast. Monday morning was spent in preparation; and I admit I wasn't that much help, instead opting to ride the horse out back with my cousins Ashley and Sabrina. That evening 16 or 17 of us served up our plates smorgasbord style off the kitchen table before spreading out around the house to eat. Every possible sitting surface was taken; from the corner of the counter to the deck chairs on the back porch. It was a merry occasion and a happy reunion. Before desert, I was presented with a card and a cake, congratulating me on the achievement of biking from coast to coast. Thanks guys!

I spent one week in Madran. Cruising around town with my cousins Darcy and Wendy, making bracelets with Chloe and Sabrina, drinking coffee at Timmy's ("one milk, one cream, one sugar pleeeeeeese!") , and imagining up creative ways to eat leftover Thanksgiving turkey. Most days Rita and I would walk down to the little brook around sunset, just to enjoy the fall colours and the peaceful gurgling of the flowing waters.

On Friday we headed north on a beer run. Wendy behind the steering wheel, Darcy navigating us towards Quebec, Stacy and I gazing out the back windows and singing along to the music. We took the old road driving along the coast, up through Cambellton, and over the bridge to Point-a-la-Croix. This little excursion reminded me of why I loved Quebec: old buildings and cheap booze. We each bought a case of beer before heading back to Bathurst to celebrate Kathy's birthday.

Ridiculous wigs, wild dancing, and exaggerated storytelling filled the night. A bowl of stew mysteriously appeared in front of me late in the evening, and I can recall through the murkiness of my alcohol infused memories how deliciously salty the hot hot veggies were. God bless women who know how to cook-Thank you Tracy!

I woke the next morning wearing Wendy's silk leopard print PJ's, crashed on the sofa with Chopper the dog pawing at my forearms. Simply said, I was not at my best. My mood improved slightly when Sabrina cooked me up a cheesy omlette for breakfast. We worked on various arts and crafts projects throughout the morning, then headed over to my cousin Mike's place for a Saturday night shindig. Folks in the Maritimes definitely seem to enjoy their weekends. Guitars were pulled out and songs were sung. Somewhere abouts midnight Mike decided it was time to get to work making donairs for everybody-the kitchen morphing into a high efficiency restaurant assembly line and before 1:00am we had all been served up hot pitas filled with spicy donair meat and sweet, creamy sauce.

Throughout the course of the week, I began to realize more and more how much I was going to miss these dear folks on the east coast when I headed back west. This thought really hit home when I departed from the train station for Montreal. To my delight and surprise, thirteen, yes thirteen, people had gathered there to see me off. I've never had a sendoff of more than two people back home, so this all felt pretty special to me. I liked being part of a merry crowd. I guess I felt accepted and loved, and I think that's all one can really ask for in life. After we said our farewells and shared our hugs, I passed my ticket to the attendant and climbed up the stairs of the train. As the train pulled out of the station and chugged off toward Montreal, I looked back to see a crowd of relatives and friends under the dim streetlight; a mass of smiling faces all waving and snapping pictures from the platform. Good bye Bathurst! I'll be back, someday.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Back on the Mainland

October 9th: When the ferry finally hit the port of North Sydney on Saturday morning, I was exhausted. The crossing was rough, the North Atlantic waves rocking the vessel starboard to port side throughout the blackness of night. Too cheap to spring for a cabin or dorm bed, I spent much of the night trying to arrange my body in a comfortable position within the restriction of the lounge seat. Marine Atlantic has this ridiculous rule about passengers not being permitted to sleep on the floor; they say it's not safe and hygienic or something. Of course, I'm sure it's just a ploy to get passengers to throw down the extra cash for the sleeper cabin upgrade. The ferry does, however, provide free shower facilities, which I took advantage of.

When we unloaded the vessel, the foot passengers were transfered off the boat via a shuttle bus. We were a tired and grumpy lot, probably because we'd waited an extra 5 hours for the ferry to depart and then the sailing was an hour or two longer than usual due to rough seas. Just before we made it to the terminal, a customer service representitive boarded the shuttle, apologising profusely for the delays, then announcing that the checked baggage had, unfortunately, failed to make it on the sailing. C'mon Marine Atlantic! The shuttle, full of already disgruntled passengers, was in an uproar. Me? I was to tired to do anything but sigh and wish that I hadn't abandoned my bike in St. John's, because if I still had my bike I wouldn't have checked my baggage, therefor I would still have all my belongings with me.

So I filled out a form, marking down Antigonish for baggage destination. Marine Atlantic promised to send my luggage along on the evening bus, but I wasn't overly hopeful that I would be seeing my belongings anytime soon. As it turns out, I didn't regain possession of my bags for another four days, meaning that I had to borrow clothes and rely on kindness of donors (thanks Rachel and Wendy!) for the time being.

If you check out my entry Rainy Days in Antigonish (September), you'll see why I was keen to visit this north coast Nova Scotian university town again. Rachel, a free-spirited girl from the organic bakery and her family had taken me in last month when the weather turned foul. I spent a couple of days hanging around the house, getting to know her mother Dolna, father David, and brother Julian. There's few things I love more in this world than reunions with old friends, or people that I hardly know but wish I could know better, so I planned to drop by and see the Garbarys one last time on my way to New Brunswick for Thanksgiving.

With my handlebar bag slung over my shoulder and my sleeping bag tucked under my arm, I headed out toward the highway to hitch a ride. On route, I was accosted by a shuttle bus driver who promised to get me to Antigonish before three, and it "wouldn't cost too much". Now, if there is one thing that I've learned from backpacking southeast asia, it's that you should never, EVER board a vehicle prior to negotiating the fare. But at this point, my mind was impaired by exhaustion in such a way that I was incapable of making thought out decisions, so I merely shrugged my shoulders in agreement and let him hustle me into the crammed minivan with all the other human sardines. Bad decision.

I hate shuttle buses. The air-conditioning never works, the music usually blows, and I always seem to get stuck with a middle seat. It was a scenic, but altogether unpleasant ride through Nova Scotia, with eight of us in a seven passenger van. When it came time for me to exit in Antigonish, the driver dropped me off at Tim Hortons because he didn't know the location of the address I gave him, then declared that I owed him $60 for the ride. The conversation which followed went something like this:

me: "sixty bucks? That's a lot of money! That's, like, my food budget for the week! I don't even have that much cash!"
driver: "hmmm, well how much do you have?"
me, pulling out my wallet, and counting my bills, the driver leaning over to make sure I wasn't missing anything: "$55, I only have 55 dollars"
driver: "Well, $50 is fine. It's a good deal; that's what you'd pay on the bus" (and I googled this later; because I'm a student, or have a student ID, it would only cost me $37)
me: "hmmm, well if I hitchhiked I wouldn't have paid a it's not that good of a deal for me, is it?"
driver (with his palm extended): "$50 dollars"
me: "I'm not giving you all my money. How about $40? That's fair."
driver: "How about $50, Miss" (said as a statement, not a question. I think he was getting tired of my incessant bartering)
me, and by this point, I'm not too impressed with this shady little shuttle bus driver who doesn't inform passengers of the fare before boarding: "Listen sir, you had seven passengers in a six passenger van; I could report you. How about $40." (also a statement)
driver: "fine."

So we both stormed off, me feeling slightly victorious but still wishing I hitchhiked and saved myself the forty bucks. I can almost guarantee the ride would have been more comfortable than inside that crammed, stuffy shuttle.

I walked up to the Garbary place around 3:15 in the afternoon, admiring the magnificence and splendor of the fall maples as I went. Inside, their kitchen was alive with the bustling of bodies and the scents of Thanksiving dinner preparation-Dolna with half a dozen tasks on the go and Julian baking up pecan pies. The stress from the past 24 hours faded away, and I was happy to be at a home, even if it was someone elses. David served me up some of their fresh veggie stew, and I ate for what I realized was the first time since I woke up that morning.

We spent the rest of the evening in the kitchen prepping squash and pies for the following day, cooking up a harvest feast for dinner, and chatting about all the little things that make up life. Late at night, Dolna tried to teach me the ways of the Cryptic Crossword, but I was too tired to follow. I crashed on the sofa bed, comfortable in Rachel's baggy purple tie-dye pants.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Hitchhiking off the Rock (Part 2)

I forgot to mention that the my journey off Newfoundland was bound by a certain time constraint: I desperately wanted to make it to Bathurst, New Brunswick, for Thanksgiving. After spending time on the road, I was beginning to feel a longing for familiar places and faces, and so I knew if I could make it to my Auntie Rita's place in New Brunswick I would be all good.

So the truck driver Larry gave me a lift all the way to Deer Lake; a town which lies only a few hours from the ferry terminal in Port aux Basques. By the time we got to our destination, the world was dark and it was raining pretty hard. Larry kindly dropped me off at the Irving Bigstop, an sizable gas station/truck stop/diner complex on the side of the highway. Parked in the vacant gravel lot behind the garage were a couple dozen big rigs. Larry figured I could sleep in the back lounge (a spacious room outfitted with sofas, payphones, and a tv) until morning then find a driver going to Port aux Basques. I figured I could do better than that: I hauled my bags into the lounge, pulled out the rabbit-eared phone book, and looked up my old friend Edna's number. After all, she said to give her a visit if I was ever in town again...

I first met Edna when I appeared on her 'bridge' on my second day on the rock, querying if I could spend the night in her yard. Conversation flowed as easily as the tea we poured, and I ended up back at her place around sunset a couple nights later when I was returning from my adventure through the mountains of Gros Morne national park. A little surprised to hear from me at 9:15 on stormy Thursday night, Edna came in her husband's big blue pickup truck to pick me up. By 9:30 I was drinking tea and watching the hockey game with Edna, her husband, and their friend Eddy. During the commercial breaks I shared with them my wild escapades over Newfoundland landscape, stopping abruptly when the puck hit the ice and then taking off again with a gusto once the ads resumed. I slept soundly, tucked under a hand stitched quilt in the basement, the dull roar of the furnace in the next room lulling me to sleep. Waaaaaaay better than a night at an Irving Bigstop.

The next morning Edna and I drank three cups of tea before she dropped me back off at the gas station on her way into town. My plan was to find another lift with a trucker, putting me in Port aux Basques with time to kill before the evening ferry. I began to ask around (btw: it does feel weird to wander up to burly men in lumberjack shirts and boots, strike up conversation, then ask for a lift. But, like all things in life, after a few runs it becomes normalized), and quickly learned that the trucks were parked behind the station first, because of high winds in the Wreckhouse, and secondly because the ferry schedule was out of wack. Rough seas and two out of four boats in the service yard totally threw off the scheduled sailing, and most of these trucks were going to be parked at the Irving for quite some time.

Realizing that none of these guys were going anywhere today, I bought a $1.24 coffee and strode across the road to thumb a ride. A couple of young fellas in over sized hoodies wandered past me, half halfheartedly leaning their thumbs out toward the passing highway traffic. I was picked up in 10-15 minutes by a fellow named Jerry driving a Honda with black leather interior. It turns out he was mayor of a small town not too far from Deer Lake, and although he was only going to Cornerbrook, I welcomed the ride. The scenery on this section of the journey was spectacular; gigantic rock cuts, smooth blue lake water, and the fiery colours of fall maples. We listened to Newfoundland music and talked all the way to Cornerbrook, where we stopped at Timmy's for more coffee, and Jerry hooked me up with a bus ticket to Port aux Basques. It seemed like my lucky day :)

The hitch was that the bus didn't leave until five pm, and it was hardly noon. Jerry dropped me off at the Plaza (a shopping mall way up on the hill), not far from the bus terminal. I abhor shopping malls. And after spending so much time surrounded by the fantastic wonders of nature, I find my repugnance towards such an artificial setting has grown. But, I figured that spending an afternoon in this deplorable place was a sufficient trade off for a free bus ticket. So I took up residence on a wooden bench not far from the entrance and commenced to make bracelets, read Farley Mowat, and write in my journal for the duration of the afternoon. I felt like a hobo; my bags strewn out on the floor beside me and my lunch spread across the bench. I had a few random conversations with the elderly, and was rescued by Jerry who stopped by after his meeting to take me sightseeing around the bay before dropping me off at the bus depot. The bus was filled with college kids traveling back to the mainland for the long weekend, and it was an hour late.

A few hours later we exited the bus at the terminal. When I bought my ticket for the ferry, I was informed that the boat was going to be a couple hours late as well: instead of the 10:30pm scheduled departure time, it was to leave at 1:00am. Unfortunately, the boat failed to depart berth before 3:30am, giving me plenty of time to descend into madness as I waited in the florescent lit terminal.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Hitchhiking off the Rock (Part One)

When I arrived in Cape Spear, I intended only to stay for an hour or so and then ride into St. John's to celebrate my achievement. I was thinking maybe a couple of shots at the bar, some ridiculousness out in the street, and perhaps kissing a codfish or two. Apparently that's something that they do around here. But once at the cape, I just didn't want to leave, and so I loafed around the lighthouse and the barracks and gun emplacements until sunset, then retreated to the community of Blackhead, only a stone's throw from the cape. It was a clear night and my fingers were numb by the time I reached the village. I knocked upon a kind woman's door, and began spouting off my story and queried if I could pass the night in her garden (that seems to be what folks call their yards round these parts). Of course, being a Newfoundlander and possessing the natural curiosity and generosity common to their kind, she invited me in for the night.

Her name was Margaret. Wearing glasses and a friendly smile, she told me that she was a widow, lived on her own, and had a lifelong love of the outdoors and a penchant for last minute travel. So instead of partying it up wildly on George Street or sleeping alone in my tent, I celebrated my arrival by sharing a cup of tea and some chocolate coated biscuits with Margaret and her friend Jerry. Life is so perfectly unpredictable.

I passed that night, and the one which followed, in the home of couchsurfing host Jenn and her fellow room mates: Nicki, Chris and Matthew. Aside from four artsy, zany, totally awesome individuals living together in a funky old house, there was also five cats and a couple of bunnies. I slept in the living room with the floppy eared rabbits; Peter and Big Mama. The sight of these cute carrot crunching creatures took me back to my childhood, and the fond recollections of long afternoons spent on our back lawn with bunnies hopping about, munching on dandelions and leaves of lettuce.

After I arrived in St. John's, I realized that I had to somehow make my way off this enormous mound of rock that has treated me so well for these past couple weeks. I hadn't really given this too much thought, since I was more concerned with making it to my destination than the aftermath involved in departing from it, but quickly decided the best way to make my getaway was to post my bike home and hitchhike off the island.

So I traded my panniers in for a brown vintage bag (I don't know how to describe it: it's neither a suitcase nor a duffel bag, and I bought it at the Sally Anne for $3.99) and bought some mittens in case my hands got cold from sticking my thumb out on the side of the highway. Oooooh, and since the thrift store was having a half price sale, I doubled my wardrobe by buying a few kids t-shirts and a retro ski jacket with a pink pop-top collar. And I invested in jeans! Ahh, sweet denim how I've missed you :)

While in St. John's I hung out with Jenn and her room mates, drinking espresso and being entertained by the silly peculiarities of our animal friends. Jenn and I went for cheap beers downtown at trivia night in a local pub, and then stayed up late, snacking and chatting in the dim light. The night prior to my departure, the four of us ran wild in the kitchen, preparing what is called a 'cooked meal'. This delightful feast consisted of a plethora of root vegetables (turnip, parsnip, carrots, potato and sweet potato), seasoned and cooked up in a big ol' pot with a delightful amount of garlic and onion. Since the house was composed of vegetarians/vegans, we cooked up a tofurky (my first!) and stirred up some veggie gravy. A variety of puddings, pickles, and pickled beets accompanied the meal. I was in heaven, once again surrounded by awesome folks and delicious food. Desert was apple crumble paired with vanilla ice cream. Then we strode off to The Rooms; St. John's art gallery/museum/archives, which happened to be free that evening.

My next ride was from a young guy with a pickup truck. He took me a little farther out of town, to Conception Bay South, and then tried to unload his bag of groceries on me. Sigh, I'm definitely going to miss this Newfie hospitality. So after I convinced him that I didn't have room for his cereal and spaghetti-os, I strolled into the Irving truck stop to buy myself a coffee. Only once I had my coffee in hand did I realize I had forgoteen my awesome handcrafted sign in the back of his truck. Bummer, man. I asked around the gas station for a ride going west, but with no luck. So I took up my post on the side of the highway, brown bag by my side, hands tucked inside my teal and white thrift store mittens, right thumb extended towards oncoming traffic.

The day was deteriorating fast, and what looked like a promising morning was quickly becoming a dark and gloomy afternoon. Luckily, I waited for no more than fifteen minutes before I was picked up by a big rig headed west, going all the way to Deer Lake. I thanked my lucky stars and jumped up into the cab, where I spent the next seven hours with my feet on the dashboard, singing along to old country songs and chatting away with Larry like he was a long lost uncle. Life was good. Every so often I would say, "and that's the spot where I camped on such-and-such date" or "I spent a night with some folks in that there town on the right". I quickly decided that although I still prefer bikes to motor vehicles, means of transportation with engines do have some noteworthy advantages over self-propelled locomotion. First of all, they get you there fast; what took me a week to cover on bike took less than a day in truck. Secondly, they provide protection against the elements. As the rain pelted down on the windshield, I sipped my coffee and smiled to myself.
I was going home :)