Editor’s note: Jack Bethel is on an approximate 8,000 mile journey through Canada and down the East Coast. He has agreed to share his adventures through a series of blogs to J&P Cycles. Bethel left Mount Vernon, Iowa on Sunday, July 22. Here, he provides his first series of trip updates from the road.
I sit now in the beautiful reading room at the library of Middlebury College, in Middlebury, Vermont. The clean luxury here is a stark contrast from my last week of travel.
Leaving from Mount Vernon, Iowa, I headed north through eastern Iowa and into Wisconsin. My first night I camped out behind a small backwoods bar in Lewis, Wisconsin (big thanks to the folks at the Sundown Saloon for giving me the “Good Guy discount”). Like I mentioned earlier, there is no need for high profile campsites; a friendly conversation can often lead to a much more rewarding place to spend the night.
For me, the hardest part of a long tour is often the very beginning. Getting out of town is always a challenge, and this time was no different. I was delayed almost a week waiting for some gear to arrive, and trying to get my affairs lined up to be gone for several months.
In these situations it almost feels as though I am swimming upstream, fighting every possible factor just to get on the road, including my own mind. Lying in bed thinking about the trip, my thoughts always go to the worst places. The “what if” questions flood my consciousness and fill me with feelings of anxiety and fear. Reciting mental checklists of gear, spare parts, tools, and supplies becomes a nervous tic. A sinking feeling in my stomach appears when I realize I left something out that I might need. A blade sharpener. A block and tackle system. Why would I need that? But what if?
When it comes down to it, some things need to be done with out thought. Like leaving. The day of my departure, I have my bags packed the night before, and trying not to think of the magnitude of the whole trip, I simply put on my riding gear and leave. My only destination is the road, everything else can wait.
As soon as I was on the road and in my helmet, everything changed. A huge wave of relief spread over me, and I was finally able to experience what this whole thing is about: having fun.
I have found that one of the most important mentalities to keep throughout any kind of journey is that of flexibility. Do not let plans become rigid, because they will never stay as you first make them. There are always factors that cannot be accounted for in a plan: weather, road conditions, energy levels, etc… all of these things play into where you end up at the end of each day. This is why I always give myself a wide berth on arrival dates, though this can cause problems for others who rely heavily on plans (a couple weeks ago my girlfriend asked me when I would be in D.C., to which I replied “Oh, I don’t know… sometime in the first two weeks of August probably”. I don’t think this was quite the answer she was looking for).
I think back to my first night on the road, and I wonder how I ended up where I did. What was it that brought me to the Sundown Saloon, to a friendly bartender and a good conversation? A storm. A bit of weather pushed me to a different road than I had planned, trying to avoid getting wet. This is one of the most beautiful things about touring: most of the decisions to be made are a product of random chance. The decision to take the road that I did was essentially made for me, my campsite was the product of a good location and rising hunger levels. This is the mentality of a long trip, to be a leaf on the wind, without ego or destination other than a direction. As Oliver Cromwell so eloquently stated, “No one rises so high as he who knows not whither he is going.”
Crossing the Border
It’s funny how something so small as crossing the Canadian border can do so much to make me feel far from home. Little things are different in Canada, it doesn’t seem like much but it can have a significant impact on one’s outlook. Perhaps it was the region that I traveled through and the differences in culture that affected me so strongly. Highway 61 north of Duluth, Minnesota is filled with bright and shining tourist towns, and the road is clogged with gawking families in overcrowded minivans driving fifteen mph under the speed limit. Once you cross into Canada, this seems to completely disappear. Tourism falls off and industry reigns supreme. Towns in northern Canada do not focus on tee-shirt stores and fine family dining, but instead have processing plants and discount markets. They exist because of the mines, and are efficient in their goals.
This shift is far from unwelcome, but it carries with it a change in behavior. All of a sudden I found my self to stand out quite a bit more. My Colorado license plate became a reason for people to stare, and wonder what in the world I was doing parked outside a dollar market in Thunder Bay. In these situations, the best thing to do is just smile and nod, and go about business as usual.
Food, gas, water, gas, food, sleep. Rinse and repeat.
Things can get pretty rural, pretty fast in Canada. Gas stations are strategically placed around every 150 km (everything is in km up there, and it’s easier to just adjust to it than to convert to miles every time), and can sometimes be further apart than that. If you forget to fill up, or carelessly breeze through a town, you can easily find yourself S.O.L. on the side of the road, wishing your bike could run off of fear and pine needles (a great alternative energy idea, someone should look in to that…). I was lucky enough to realize this fact with out incident. Leaving my first campsite outside of Thunder Bay, I almost ran out of gas before the next filling station, after passing a couple that had been shut down years before I arrived. I miraculously made it nearly 100 km on my ½ gallon reserve tank (the story of the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah came to mind…).
This feeling of being in an entirely foreign land was never as strong as it was once I crossed into Quebec. I suppose that I should have done a little more research on the region, but imagine my surprise as I began to look for a place to camp (there is no better way than to ask to locals), only to find that almost no one in northern Quebec speaks English. Holy French, Batman. Not wanting to be harassed in a language I don’t understand (always a possibility when poaching a campsite), I ended up breaking down and heading into Aiguebelle National Park for the night, paying an outrageous $36 dollars for entrance fees and some dirt to pitch my tent on (though I wont argue that the picnic table they provided was a much appreciated luxury). As the night progressed, I became less upset at the price. The campground attendant, and friendly man named Serg, gave me some firewood, and I found some wonderful classical music on my crank powered radio. The entrance fees covered the next day as well, and I gave my legs a much needed stretch on a beautiful little hike. Ultimately, the national park was one of my best nights on the road.
As for the specifics of the trip, were came from, where I’m going and when (ish) I will be there, I came across Canada on the 17, 101 and 117 highways, and am now headed south to Washington. Plans changed and I needed to be in D.C. sooner than I thought (again, the importance of flexibility), but I will also be leaving sooner than I thought. Together, coupled with my delays in the beginning of the trip, this means that Labrador, Newfoundland, and Nova Scotia will have to wait until after Washington. I will head back north, into Canada in a couple weeks and hopefully take the trans-lab at that point, before the trip comes to its grand finale in Woods Whole, Massachusetts at the end of August.
Today’s total mileage from Iowa: 2,105
More updates will come soon, feel free to leave questions in the comments section below and I will do my best to answer them. Now that I am back in the States, Internet is more easily available.
Thanks to all those along the way so far.