Whitewood, Canada - Polarsteps
We had a sweet morning and a slow cup of coffee outside with Bruce and Sherry, before taking off a little before 11. I'd made the fatal error of taking off my Blundstones next to a shoe rack that was already full of Blundstones (if you've ever been to a potluck in Victoria, you know where this is going), and Bruce and Sherry's son's friend, who had been over for the evening, had accidentally worn them home to Regina. A sequence of phone calls and hand-offs later, Sherry pulled over on the highway ahead of us and danced with the boots until we caught up.
We'd been pretty easily completing some longer days, and we'd confidently planned to cover 105km to Whitewood; there's an affordable campground there and when we called to confirm their rates they recommended reserving a site, so we did (for two nights; we were both starting to feel exhausted, and wanted a bit of time to catch up on things including this blog).
This initiated easily one of the hardest days we've had on this trip. I've mentioned before that the wind defines every day cycling on the prairies; on this day it was coming from the southeast, so simultaneously trying to blow us backward and into the road, and gusting at 42km/h, relentlessly. Moving forward was a struggle for our legs, the flat-land equivalent of climbing a mountain all day, and continuously muscling the front ends of our bikes to keep them pointing straight ahead was a shoulder and neck killer. The long distance moved by brutally slowly; we counted kilometres, didn't take a lot of breaks, and made it into Whitewood on our last energy stores with the sun setting behind us.
We ended up booking a third night here, because we needed it. Whitewood is a quiet, quaint little town and the campground is shaded and breezy (albeit pretty mosquito-infested, but we got some repellant coils and we're managing it), which is everything we could ask for. We made a friend, Bill, our tent site neighbour yesterday; at seventy-five he just bought a car he can sleep in and took off from the seniors' community where he lives in High River AB to drive to Newfoundland and meet some of his extended family that he's never connected with before. He's a poet and a drummer, and he's lined up gigs drumming with bands along the way. He loves Neil Young and Willie Nelson so much; he spent some of the afternoon quietly drumming along to them in his campsite. He's worked with horses his whole life, and left us with a couple of CDs and a draft of his book about the Canadian jumping team that won at the Mexico City Olympics. He's full of wild, animated stories and good life-talk; sort of a perfect bookend on our time in Saskatchewan, where I think we'll remember the places themselves less than we'll remember the people we spent time with along the way.
If all goes well we'll cross into Manitoba tomorrow. Obviously three provinces in isn't exactly making great time for halfway through July, especially considering we started in mid-April. It was so cold and wet for so long that it feels like summer only just started, but back on the farm the winter crops are going into the fields, a yearly shock and reminder that we're in an inevitable slide to the other half of the year.
I don't know whether or not we're going to make it to the Atlantic in the time it takes a cabbage to reach maturity. It goes without saying that this is a really huge land mass, the second-largest that's considered one country, and the widest part of this continent. It's been easy to wonder on the prairies why people cycle across Canada (and they do, a lot; we don't meet them much, but we do often pull into a campground and hear about the five other cross-country cyclists who have been through this week). It's a long route, not well set up for a bike tour-- riding the Trans Canada Highway with all its RVs and transport trucks is inevitable, and hiker/biker systems in campgrounds are non-existent-- and it can be reticent with its rewards when you're covering hundreds of kilometres of unchanging farmland while fighting wind, heat, and mosquitoes. 3000+ kms doesn't get you far here; it gets you to Manitoba and just over halfway to Toronto, and sometimes if you let your eyes wander over the rest of the map, you realize that in the same distance you would be well beyond done the U.S. Pacific coast by now, or all of Mongolia, or the full length of India, or a large-ish number of European countries. A couple of days ago we fantasized out loud about boxing everything up in Winnipeg and flying to Australia, just to get on different roads and shake it all up. "What if we were doing all this hot, remote biking, but with kangaroos," we wondered.
I think a lot of people must cycle across Canada for the accomplishment, to have done it; it's common to complete it in three months, which means moving exceptionally fast, an impressive athletic feat. That doesn't work for us; we're in it for the experience, which releases us from any ultra-serious time pressure to finish anything, but also on the days when the cycling part is truly not enjoyable, raises the question of why.
For now, we're sticking with it. Along this route, Kini and I have lived in a combined seven cities and towns, and if we pool our friends and family along the way they are many. We're running a thread between as many of those places and people as we can, seeing in detail how the landscape shifts when you cross it. The cycling part is less about the bikes themselves or even the act of cycling, and more about opening a portal to this experience of time and space, and to this parallel world where people share their life stories and sometimes their homes with strangers with little hesitation, because we're doing something a little crazy and a little whimsical and visibly weird.
So, hi from mid-July in Whitewood, Saskatchewan, at least one Mongolia from the Pacific Ocean, riding a kangaroo-less highway towards winter cabbage season. A little bug-eaten but still in it and heading to Manitoba.
As mentioned, this was one of the hardest days of the trip. I thought the prairies were going to literally be a breeze (from winds moving west to east) but that really is not the case. This day we booked a campsite 105km away, which would have been no problem but we had a headwind the entire day. At km 80 I felt myself mentally losing it a bit and exhausted to the point where things in my peripherial vison were starting to do funny things a bit. I was happy to arrive and pass out in the tent, even if our site was next to a bog (at one point Sara asked if I farted but it was just the bog. Apparently I am as stinky as a bog).
Another camper rolled in around noon the next day, Bill. He is really good at talking with people and told stories of his life and experiences in a way that didn't feel like too much or like I needed to exit the conversation. He talked for hours and that was okay. He was also extremely inspirational; he wanted to live out his life to the fullest, so that is what he was doing. His friends worry about him being on the road and not taking it easy (which according to him is to stay home, watch tv and get together to complain about aches and pains). Bill wasn't having it. There was such an understanding for what we are doing. I am so glad we met him.
🚲 Bike Jaunt 🚲