That Dempster feeling 05/02/2013Posted by mikeonbike in cycling, travel.
Tags: australia, derby, gibb river road, repairs
So I didn’t take the Great Northern Highway. I shrugged at the junction and disappeared down a cattle trail instead.
It took me nine days to ride the Gibb River Road – 670 km of rock, sand and corrugations that rattled every bolt in my bike. I shredded my tires twice and broke five screws in my pannier racks. Even my shoes fell apart. And I loved it.
It reminded me of another road, the first of this long journey. There the only sounds were bugs, birds and the slow crunch of gravel beneath my feet. I lived on creek water and sunshine, slept beneath tender stars. I was never better than in the Territories.
The feeling faded over time, maybe from age or the weary cynicism of travel. I thought it was gone forever, that this was a fool’s errand. I went mad trying to find it again, when all the time I only had to stop. Breathe. Let it tap me on the shoulder.
It has, and I aim to savor it.
The Balkans 06/24/2010Posted by mikeonbike in cycling, travel.
Tags: balkans, border, bosnia, heat, repairs, sarajevo, serbia, war
I am ready to hit the road again after spending a full week resting in western Serbia. I needed time to make sense of the things I’ve seen in the Balkans, to line them up in my head before I commit them to words.
I don’t think I’m any closer, but for the sake of folks who read this, I’ll try to say something.
Bosnia was nothing like I expected, though I wonder now what it was I thought I’d find.
In the north I cycled past fields of golden straw, watching hunched farmers shape the land with nothing more than pitchforks and shovels.
At dusk they loaded themselves into horse-drawn wagons and clopped down the highway to old stone houses. They always smiled, always waved, and after they’d gone I wondered just what it is we’re growing in the rows of mechanized perfection back home.
The heat didn’t burn but choke as I approached Sarajevo. In two-street villages I began to find memorials for dozens, all killed the same way, the same day. It was nothing like the markers I saw in Belgium and France. I couldn’t walk away from these. For the first time in my life I shared the dates on the stones, and it hurt to swallow.
Sarajevo. The Bosnian capital lies in a valley, guarded by towering green mountains that seem to keep the outside world at bay. There you find mosques, synagogues and cathedrals erected almost side-by-side, and yet the only tension on the ground is between tourists jostling for a photograph. Sun or stars, the streets were all the same – clean, quiet, safe.
It was inspiring, but I don’t pretend to understand it. How can the best in us survive amid the poison of recent history? Where do people find the will to grow, to rise up and deliver themselves to something better? Maybe there is no answer. That these things are happening is enough for me.
Climbing east to Serbia was brutal under the blazing summer sun. For a week the temperature hovered around 40°C, and I had to drink six or seven litres of water each day just to stay on my feet. Even then it was tough. At the top of one mountain pass I was doubled over my bike, shaking and trying not to retch. From then on I biked only in the morning and evening, letting the heat of the day pass while I lounged in the shade.
After getting my passport stamped at the border, I made for Užice, where I hoped to find a bicycle shop to fix my wobbling rear tire.
In my search I met a teenage boy who asked in broken English where I was going and what I was doing in Serbia. He grinned and disappeared with my answers. Thinking nothing of it, I returned to my bike, stuffing the panniers with supplies.
When I turned to leave, I stopped short and gaped. There, standing before me, was a group of 20 or more kids, all staring at my bike as though it had come from the moon. They wanted to see everything, touch everything, and again and again they asked if I’d really cycled all the way from Canada. We took photographs. One boy proudly wrote “Serbia” in Cyrillic on my waterproof bag. And when I said, after 45 minutes, that I had to leave, a kid reached into his pocket and gave me two bent cigarettes.
I sometimes think it’s stupid when people make a fuss over my trip. Not this time.
Those kids knew, and I soon realized, that they will probably never get a chance to do something like this. Most Serbians don’t have a lot, and they have to work themselves raw to even get that much. The truth is that they can’t see the world.
I don’t pity them. The shame is us. So many Canadians have the freedom to spin the globe, to visit any spot we wish. On a few month’s wages we can see the pyramids, the rain forest, the most modern cities in the world. We have the opportunity, every single day, to meet new people and learn from them as they learn from us. But too often we don’t.
Instead we get diplomas, pay our bills and go to work, nagged by a vague sensation that something is missing from our world. Something is missing.
Breakdown, it’s alright 01/29/2010Posted by mikeonbike in cycling, travel.
Tags: exhaustion, portugal, repairs, wind, winter
Being on the road every day has nothing to do with strength. It’s a question of stamina and sometimes I feel as though I don’t have the answer. Some days I’m a ghost, a cycle drone, squinting at painted lines and exit signs. So much rolls by and yet I’m amazed at how little registers in my mind.
Winter took a heavy toll on my body – day in and day out every ounce of energy was spent on simply staying warm and dry. There were times when my fingers were so cold I couldn’t tie my shoes, and my feet froze so badly in France that I still have no feeling in my big toes. But the options were go on or go home, so I lowered my head, made the miles and biked to Portugal. It took everything I had, and now, under blue skies and shining sun, I find there isn’t much left.
A break is what I need. I can’t say when or where, but at some point in the next month or so I want to find a place where I can relax. Recuperate.
I find it so very strange that my bicycle should run out of steam at the same time as me. I had what you might call a catastrophic breakdown in central Portugal, and it wasn’t until yesterday that I finally managed to resolve the problem.
As I was biking up a pitiless hill, my chain lost tension and I was left without any forward momentum. What happened next was kind of a blur, but what I do know is that my loyal steed bucked me into a gutter and then fell on top of me. I emerged from the ditch mad as hell, swearing a blue streak and kicking gravel everywhere. Luckily, aside from my bruised pride, the only casualty was a plastic Gladware container, which shattered into a million microwaveable and dishwasher-safe pieces.
Oh, and my ride had some serious issues. The bike’s transmission was completely worn out, and for the next 40 km of rolling terrain I was left with exactly one gear. Not the easy gear, mind you. That would be too . . . easy. I was stuck in tailwind mode, which was heaven on the downs and a nightmare on the ups. After a few hours I managed to cycle to Torres Vedras where I was exceptionally fortunate to find a bicycle shop owner who spoke English.
And the service! The head mechanic was like the Mr. Miyagi of bicycle repair. What would have taken me a full day of hammering and cussing took him about 30 minutes of serenity. When I waved goodbye, gears clicking beautifully, I was the proud owner of a new cassette, small crank wheel, chain and derailleur cable.
Unfortunately, my luck had another hiccup when I left the city. My derailleur cable came unhooked from the shifter, and once again I was down to one gear.
The ride to the next major centre was horrible – two hours of bucking wind and dodging honking trucks. My mood was rotten when I arrived in Vendas Novas, and it didn’t improve much after that.
The first shop I found was without its mechanic for the day, so I followed a paper napkin map to the only other place in town. There the owner informed me that he would not fix my bike because I didn’t buy it in his store. He didn’t suggest anywhere else for me to go, just that I go away. So I did.
I biked 25 more kilometres to Montemor-o-Novo and finally found someone with the tools and know-how to fix my bike. It was a kid working at a motorcycle shop, of all things. He wasn’t as experienced as my bicycle guru in Torres Vedras, but he did an excellent job and only charged me 3 Euros for the repairs.
I wasn’t back on the road again until nightfall, but I still hoped to find my turnoff and camp somewhere outside the city. Navigation is tricky in the dark, though, so I wandered over to a small café to ask for directions before I inevitably got lost.
Once inside, I was devoured by a gaggle of old men who were shining with wine, singing arm in arm and watching the Portuguese version of The Price is Right. Being from Canada, they thought it very important that I sample the vino tinto from Lisbon. Again and again and again. For two hours they kept buying me drinks, shoving food in front of me and asking about every detail of my trip. It was such a treat after the previous few days that I could have died smiling right there.
By the time I zig-zagged back to my bike, the only directions I needed were to a cheap hotel in the city centre. There I slept like a baby and had a shower for the first time in 11 days. And today, today I treated myself to lunch at a restaurant, which put a bit of spring back in my step.
Now all I need to do is get my feet back on the road.
Tags: camping, canada, dempster highway, inuvik, northwest territories, repairs
Though I was trying my best to keep a bright face, the last few days of piddling around Inuvik got to me. It was damned near impossible to feel any real sense of accomplishment when my only daily goals – besides waiting for my bike part – were to find a town pin and sew the butt back into my pants.
Things finally came to a head yesterday, and I marched right down to the North Mart and bought some bread and cheese slices. I was feeling sorry for myself and I needed comfort food. But here’s a valuable lesson from the North – feel sorry for yourself all you want because nobody else cares. Case in point: I neatly unwrapped the cheese slices and turned my back to light a fire when a crow the size of a family dog swooped down. It grabbed all my cheese in one bite and flew across the lake, mocking me all the way.
So, lesson learned. I threw a coat of stiffener on my upper lip and tried to make the best of my predicament. I realized that if someone had asked me a month ago if I’d like to be “stuck” in Inuvik, eating great food, breathing fresh air and getting tons of sleep, I’d have jumped at the chance. No sense in whining about it now.
I guess my change in perspective worked, too, because this morning I woke up to a guy whispering through my tent, “Are you the bike fella? I’ve got a part for you.” And though these words have never escaped my lips before, I, in my inarticulate relief, blurted out, “Oh thank you, Jesus!”
Thank you, indeed.
Now I’m off. Simple as that. I biked up to the northern edge of the Dempster Highway this morning, snapped a quick photo, had a bit of a cry, and now I’m on my way to who knows what. I feel like a little kid! I’m grinning from ear to ear and nothing, short of lightning bolt aimed at my helmet, can possibly wreck my mood. The next stop is Fort McPherson, about a day’s ride down the highway.
The north country 06/13/2009Posted by mikeonbike in cycling, travel.
Tags: bus, camping, canada, inuvik, northwest territories, repairs
It took 38 hours on a bus and six more in the air, but I finally made it! I walked across the rainy tarmac at Inuvik’s airport just after noon yesterday and I’ve been exploring the town ever since.
What a place! I hadn’t even set up my camp yet when the local newspaper arrived to snap my picture. Apparently I was selected as the Visitor of the Week. I thought it was a big joke at first, but the mayor came to shake my hand – on camera, of course – and offer me a gift basket from local businesses. Among other things, I now have an over-sized Inuvik T-shirt and a coupon for a free hair cut on Main Street. Crazy.
The reporter, only a year or so older than me, asked if I had any plans for the evening. I shrugged at my little camp and said no. Two hours later I was sitting in his friend’s apartment watching game seven of the Stanley Cup finals, eating homemade bacon cheeseburgers and drinking Pilsner. Then, after ragging on Cindy Crosby for awhile, we piled into a cab for the four-minute jaunt to the Trapper’s Den.
Now that’s a bar where you want to watch your drink. And your back. In Regina, folks say “excuse me” and contort their bodies into all sorts of weird shapes to squeeze around you. Here they just run over you. Grunts are optional. But that’s okay – I can fit in pretty much anywhere as long as I know the rules.
The crash course in all things Inuvik was important, too, because it looks as though I’ll be here until Sunday or Monday. I somehow managed to forget (or lose) the top cap for my bike’s handlebars. I can’t ride anywhere until it gets fixed. I thought it would be as simple as ordering a new cap from a bike shop, but no one up here carries the part. In the end, after about a dozen phone calls, I had no choice but to order a brand new stem from Whitehorse. It’s kind of like buying a new lamp when the bulb burns out, but what can you do?
Luckily, I have a few things to keep me busy until the part arrives. The Whitehorse airport staff confiscated my camp fuel and bear spray, so I need to track down some sort of replacements.
I also have to stitch the crotch back into my shorts. I realized, somewhere between BC and the Yukon, that a certain part of my anatomy was dangling awkwardly from the front of my khakis. Sewing isn’t exactly my forte, so it should be an interesting experience.
Hope to be on the road in a few days – I’ll update again when I can!
p.s. Did I mention the sun never sets here?!?