[posted to the Wheeled Migration Yahoo Group on June 12, 2005]
Some reflections on my ride through "the north": The region I rode through is referred to as "Northern Ontario" even though it's south of most of Ontario -- it's just north of most of the inhabited part. Sometimes it's just called "the north" or even "northern Canada" even though it's actually south of most of the Canada-US border and the majority of the provinces!
To be blunt, Trans-Canada Highway 17 is not appropriate for bicycling. Had I encountered the prospect of riding for a week on two-lane highway with intermittent shoulders and no alternate routes earlier in the trip, I would have boarded a bus instead. But after months of riding through the South and the Northeast US, it didn't seem like such a dumb idea. Besides, Canadian cyclists ride it all the time, and most of them survive, so how bad could it be?
I will say it has three big advantages over similar highways in the States: most of the drivers are Canadian, the speed limit is just 90 km/h (about 55 mph), and because all the tourist traffic is on one road, so are all the campgrounds, motels, etc. The informational signs are more standardized than any I've seen before: if you see a tent symbol you know tent camping is allowed; if RV camping is also allowed there will be a trailer symbol. Imagine that!
The best standardized symbol I saw was for a "naturist beach" near Montreal. It showed the man, woman, and child we all know from restroom signs, standing rigidly in rear view, with their bums showing, and a waterline in the background. (The woman, lacking her trademark dress, had hips.)
I lucked out with the conversion factors: the exchange rate from US to Canadian dollars was about the same as from miles to kilometers! So all I had to remember was that 5 = 8: instead of averaging 5 mph and 50 miles a day, I was going 8 and 80 km; highway amenities advertised as "5 minutes" away were 8 km or an hour's ride away; and a $16 campsite was really only US$10. I also lucked out because it's a very affordable time to be an American tourist in Canada. It's not just the exchange rate... I think it's actually cheaper to eat out than to buy groceries and cook the same food yourself! I don't understand why that's the case.
I passed a town named Espanola and another one not far away named Spanish. Think how many town names we could get out of all the different ways you can say Germany! That's almost as confusing as the town west of Ottawa named Kanata... but I guess New York, New York is worse!
I really enjoyed listening to CBC Radio, but I was thrown by a news story about how Canada needs more "affordable hosing." I think Wal-Mart might have some good deals on rubber garden houses, eh?
I will never criticize Americans again -- not even Texans -- for excessive flag waving, because the Canadians have got us beat. You'd think it was mandatory or something. What I don't understand is that the stars & stripes are often flown side by side with the maple leaf, at equal height... what's that supposed to mean, "God Bless the U.S. Eh?"
Thanks to my father's friend Bill for the questions below:
Q: Other than larger muscles in certain places, did the trip change you? I presume you've read Pirsig's "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance," about another road trip. Is there a story behind your trip that you are discovering, too?
A: Well, thank goodness I don't have Pirsig's problem, but I have appreciated the time touring gives me to reflect on my life. Doris "Granny D" Haddock put it better than I could. I've gained a lot of confidence in my survival skills, but most of the real life-changing transformation happened in the first week of my first bike trip. This leads me to say that anyone looking for a transformative experience shouldn't wait until s/he can spare a month or a year -- a week might do the trick.
Q: What did you learn? Will your life be different now?
A: My goal in taking such a long trip was not to change my life but rather my lifestyle... I was in a sort of rut, and I needed to see what else was available before I got more set in my ways. Now I'm in a different rut, so having a home and job again will be a refreshing change! I do intend to settle down eventually, but now I might do it by buying a campground, for example (but only after I spend the coming year in the Twin Cities). I've learned too many things to list at the moment; maybe I'll make a list for the Web site.
Q: What impression did you get of the USA in 2005 and the people along the way, blue states and red?
A: Well, I still believe our civilization is a sinking ship, but now I'm a lot more relaxed about it. I'm glad I got a chance to see the petroleum dinosaurs walk the earth, and soon now it'll be time for whatever comes next. But getting back to short-term politics, to the extent that the blue-red categories are valid, there are very few states that are solid colored. What we've got is blue polkadots on a red background. But I think the stereotypes get in the way of our working together and learning from each other. We're all doing what looks right from where we stand; we're just standing in different places.
Q: Do you trust people more or less now?
A: Definitely more. An awful lot of bad things could have happened to me at the hands of other people and didn't. Never mind the obvious assault and theft; think of all the statistics about how badly people drive when they're on the phone, adjusting the radio, gawking, or falling asleep. Either I've been very fortunate (they say God looks after innocents and fools), or people are more trustworthy than we give them credit for. Plus I've received a lot of generosity from strangers and only rarely regretted it!
I've got some more questions saved up for next time. See you in Wisconsin! --Ben