To some, the road’s shoulder, the space between the white line and the edge of pavement looks like any other. A cyclist can tell you that it morphs as often as the frequency of traffic or weather. The quality, or absence of shoulder, can make or break a good day. Smooth blacktop puts a smile on my face and a dance in my pedal stroke. Other days I fight to stay upright between the cracks. The shoulder grows and shrinks and with it my confidence that cars and trucks behind will keep to themselves and not stray over.
The shoulder can be a treasure trove of odd objects. I’ve heard first-hand accounts of long distance cyclists finding zip-ties after their luck took a turn and a rack mount broke off. A bungee cord basking in the sun like a snake would find itself strapped across the back of a bicycle holding on dear possessions.
Occasionally, a glint of something ahead catches my attention and I slow down or turn back if I find it particularly interesting. Outside Vanderhoof, as I cycle west across Highway 16 in the British Columbia interior, it’s a yellow handled multi-tool. Later, north along the Haida Gwaii coast it’s a pink knife with a broken blade. I’ve seen crescent wrenches, tire irons, screws, nuts, nails, bottle openers, a single crutch, pliers, baby shoes, front and rear bumpers and even discarded cars, all orphans waiting for new homes.
The most important things I’ve found on the road cannot be touched but are felt, such as the changes within me. The moments when I feel truly alive. Cresting a climb and on the descent a curious hawk matches my speed and decides to draft along. I look up and I feel the bicycle disappear beneath me. I’ve taken flight and spread my wings.
I feel a sense of accomplishment after topping out at the end of a climb, especially on those hills where around every corner is another false summit. It’s an easy rush to find, there’s always another hill. I could believe some hills exist just to tempt me, beckon me to shift down and get it over with. I feel a shiver along my spine as I rise out of the saddle to charge forward like a knight in a jousting match.
I find a certain measure of accomplishment on how far I can trace my finger across a world atlas knowing that my own two legs propelled me along our beautiful pale blue dot of a planet. That being said it would be insincere to say that distance is the only measure of cycle touring. The people I meet along the road are every bit as memorable as the ⇑ride itself, they are the living energy of the town, the city, the hosts of a community.
Cycle touring is a fusion between individual expression and community. These cyclists move like migrating birds to the world’s most scenic roads and paths. Although unlike birds, we don’t travel in flocks but weave in and out of each other’s lives imprinting pieces of ourselves on each other and sharing our life stories with those we ride with. I never knew when someone would ride up and help me write a new chapter in my travels, but was always grateful as it added a new dimension and layer to my adventure, forever changing the road I was on by figuratively nudging me in one direction or another.
You might wonder where are all these cycle tourists? You can find them in your local food co-op or supermarket. Drying their tent on a fence by the side of the road. Asking for the wifi password at the cozy coffee shop at the end of the street. Filling up their water bottles at that gas station in the middle of nowhere.
You’ve heard the saying, “Learn to appreciate the small things in life.” My small things are a warm mug in my hands after a cold ride. Finding chalk messages left on the shoulder by other cyclists encouraging me to keep going. Locating a campsite that fulfills my needs of high, dry, flat and out of sight. Moments of clarity and inspiration to write in my journal that act as an organizational container for my thoughts and feelings. Finding the ability to laugh while riding in the rain. The list is long, but so is my ride and I love every moment of it because I feel alive, even when it feels like the bottom has dropped out.
Sometimes in moments of complete exhaustion or cycling-related pain, my mental fortitude slips and I end up in a dark place. Existential questions: what am I doing and why?
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My 5,000 kilometre journey through two provinces and three states began in Jasper, Alta., a place I was fortunate enough to call home for three years. I made friends there with Raj Ghimire, who is from a remote region of the Himalayan Mountains in Nepal. Raj has been raising funds for the reconstruction of a school destroyed in the April 2015 earthquakes near his family home. Through my cycling journey on behalf of mountainsofrelief.com, we raised enough money to finish building the school for 68 children in Lisakhani last year. I had the fortune of visiting the school in February, where I played volleyball with the students.
Their smiles helped answer my existential questions.