Archive for August, 2010

August 3, 2010

Driven from North Dakota

By 1000 I was raring to go. Another set of wily nurses had replaced the shift from yesterday. They still wanted a stool sample which I denied them. Too bad so sad, they’d have to get their precious stool somewhere else. There was a lot off biking to be done.

The doc re-appeared and bowed and scraped a bit, apparently unsure how to tell me that the bed needed vacation by sundown. Not a problem. At 1130 the IV was out, clothing restored and the bike rescued from its parking spot in the bleach-white hallway.

A burger stop was required at Neil’s Harbor and then it was non-stop to Pleasant Bay. The doc had been doubtful that I’d make it, said there were several mountains between here and there.

Maybe he’d never biked it himself but the only mountain I found was a 13% incline that went on for five K [ridiculous – I was almost afraid of falling over backwards].

Coming down out of Cape Breton Highlands National Park I looked around myself and thought how nice it would be to find a hostel somewhere. And miraculously one appeared.

Ahead of me on the road was a sign for Cape Breton Hostel. I’d had no idea.

Up the road about one K from a pink hotel overlooking a typically maritime theme – boats lined up in a sheltered harbor – the hostel presented itself. A house built from three trailers stacked together with the walls knocked out to make an integrated space.

A nice lady named Jean, with a lazy eye and a penchant, I would notice, for knitted sweaters, was doing dishes when I rolled up. An artist, she’d moved here for the summer and was doing a bit of gardening work for cheaper accommodation. Several years had been spent in Vancouver in the ’80s before i was even born, studying and taking meditation classes upstairs at the Naam restaurant. Other days had been spent abroad and in Ottawa, teaching art, particularly pottery, and now the mainstay was oil-on-canvas landscape productions. She didn’t actually live in the hostel building but down the yard in a small fifth-wheel.

Lizzy showed up a few minutes after I did and took my money. She’s in her early forties, managing the place for the young couple who own it. Childhood had started in England and and in her late teens she’s immigrated to Canada by herself. One of those immigrant stories we hear about showing up from the boat with ten bucks in her pocket, she’d found a job and lived in Van on Dunbar and 16th for sixteen years. A few circumstances in Van eventually prompted her to pack her car and trailer and start driving East, and just before running out of ground and making a wet landing in the Atlantic she’s found Cape Breton and established herself. She now works for a whale-watching company for fourteen weeks of the year, plus this hostel-management gig. She has a house, a car and a whole country of tax-payers kind enough to help her out with her winter months of mortgage, utilities and grocery expenses.

Filling the bivy bag with clothing greased by NL sweat and tears and NS puke stains I took jaunt down to the pink hotel where laundry machines abounded for three bucks a load. While waiting to retrieve, I carried on down the road to as store and then further along towards a beach in the sheltered harbor.

Its always an excellent circumstance when a blonde Ausie chick stops you for directions, and in Cape Breton the encounter was as pleasant as it was unexpected. The white Escape had come driving towards me, its massive American frame to big for the alley-size road it was terrorizing and by a quiet sucking sound the automatic window removed itself to reveal an immaculate face. It was like Barbie in her jeep – sexy – but something about the match just didn’t click. Either she was too small or it was too large. The seat fairly swallowed her – even sitting on a phone book wouldn’t have helped.

There was a shadow of maleness on the passenger side but I ignored it. The question on her lips was about fish and chips and of course I was useless.

“I just got here.” I said, and a thank you was issued, quick banter exchanged and the machine crawled on.

The blonde and her shadow would re-appear when I returned with the soap-smelling laundry. This was forty minutes later and the interval had provided what they wanted: a restaurant ten minutes down the road – and any restaurant in Cape Breton is a guaranteed answer to good fish and chips.

Mel was the girl’s name and her mysterious shadow was Niel, sharper-cut than a guillotine and taller than a bad lie. He would’ve made a good contender for Marlboro Man Of The Year and if it ever came down to fighting him or running like hell I’d pick the flight option and maybe later drop a sandbag on him from a high building.

These two were not a package but had met up in Halifax. It was mere coincidence that both were Ausies. The simple fact was, Neil was in the money and had rented a car and Mel was on a budget and needed a ride. The two would soon be splitting up, Mel to find a way to St. John’s and Neil to return Down Under, his four months of freedom exhausted.

Going inside we found a guy from North Dakota sitting on the couch in company of a Macbook. Twenty, first time away from home, quiet but with an aura of ambiton that came out in conversation later that night. He’d got a second-hand Cuttlass from his grandpa as a graduation present, worked for a bit and gotten jaded by the flat endless prairie and his birth-town that never grew, changed or vanished but simply existed to turn colour with the two seasons of that land. That’s when he took computer, clothing and a long deep breath and fired the ignition on a new lifestyle. The lifestyle of the road. And now he’d showed up here. A bit of WWOOFing [World Wide Oportunities on Organic Farms] had been done, where a traveller works for food and shelter, and relatives had been visited in Ontario. The future was uncertain but one thing wasn’t: Dakota was home, but not the pasture he was looking for. The question now was whether to sell the car, because nothing slims a wallet like gas money, and carry on by some other means. But until the answer found itself there was always the Cape Breton Highlands which is a dirt cheap place to go about making long drawn-out decisions. Contact with the family was good and he’d had few good talks with a sister over Skype. Dillon told me that night about asking a farm-owning lady he’d worked for what she would do if she won the lottery. To her the answer came fast: A new truck, a new barn, some horses maybe. And the point that Dillon brought up was that in a way he envied this lady, because happy are those who find their satisfaction easily. In five years or so, this thinker of a twenty-year-old pointed out, this lady could have her dream come true. What about people like us? Call us wanderers if you wish. We could never do that. But when your wish is to wander maybe a piece of the joy is to never find what you’re truly seeking – because when the object is found the wandering ends.

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August 3, 2010

Stool samples and mad-hatter seduction

I’m not just being cute, there really was an old-lady mad-hatter seduction attempt. But it’s funny what a title does to a blog entry. Maybe people just click these things for the title. You people are sick, all you want is vileness and debauchery. Try a Harlequin, or if you want to add depth, Orwell. Otherwise get a real hobby, like a boat or something.

I carried on minus breakfast to a general store passing itself off as a town on the map. This happens a lot in Canada.

I sat down to a cup of coffee and conversation and out of nowhere came this lady wearing an ungodly hat. It was tall, purple, velvety and stovepipe-ish. She owns a hat-store down the street, which is probably enough info to deface this person in real life [since Cape Breton is damn small but obviously has internet] which is something i don’t wan to do, because really she was nice. And really, maybe she was in her fifties, so she wasn’t tottaly an old lady.

Anyway, so I mention biking and she talks about her sons, on in Alberta, one an artsy type living closer to home. About the biking, a warning came out regarding the next ‘mountain’ called Cape Smokey, just a few K ahead.

So next thing we know this lady is coming in for the kill and wanting me to come do laundry at her place and offering to fix me an egg for the ride over Smokey. And I had already accepted out of a real need to do laundry and egg-eating when a light went off in my brain. An incident similar to this one happened to me in the Yukon once, and intentions on the other side had been less about laundry than I’d anticipated. Don’t worry mom, I escaped and evaded, hopefully hurt no feelings, and if you could call that a lesson, I learned it.

So nothing against the Hat Lady but a minute after affirming to the positive I mumble a tune about changing my mind, I really needed to get biking but thanks anyway, and ran out the door.

The screen was about to latch itself and the last thing I heard was the Hat Lady remarking to the old guy at the counter, maybe I was scared she was going to try and take advantage of me.

I had been feeling a bit out of sorts all morning but I tried to ignore it and just push on. I had a feeling I knew what was happening and didn’t like it one bit. Before smokey tiredness was overcoming me, deep, dragging tiredness that I recognized and it was barely that I managed to drag myself up into a niche of woods by the roadside. I spread the bivy bag as a ground sheet and fell into a sick sleep waking up twenty minutes later and managing a quick roll before power-puking on the floor of the forest. Pleasant. Out my nose and everything.

It got on the bivy bag as well and the best I could do was take off my yellow Sandy Beach T-shirt, a freebie from the bro and beloved for the one week I’d had it, to wipe my face and gear well enough to pass a combat-inspection. I was dead but I had to get on the bike. No way was I stopping someone to call an ambulance.

The best part was up-and-coming. Cape Smokey made Kelly’s Mountain look like a pimple and I had to lead the bike for most of it. Near the top they were working on the road and I asked a flag-man about a hospital. Closest one was Neil’s Harbor, another 60K or so. Three hours on a good day.

Outside Ingonish I had to lie down again for an hour and a car stopped to ask if I was good and I just smiled and waved them on.

Here’s a piece of road advice. If your planning to bike the Cabot Trail, don’t. The only person who would enjoy it for the hills is someone like me, and people like me ignore advice like this all the time. So, people like me, wont miss out. But for the rest of you, stay off it. You’ll never thank me because you’ll never know what you missed.

There is one word for the Cabot trail and that word is ‘hilly’.

The Cabot Trail [‘Cabot Trial’, if you like awful puns] is hilly. Not a sloping Sea-To-Sky hilly but a brutal climb-from-San-Francisco-Bay hilly.

On the positive side, you definitely want to drive it. That will be three hours, not three days. The vistas are great. Once you’ve labored along for a bit you can look back and see the bouncing pirate-island landscape and a sea that changes colour with the bottom, which you can see because your so high up.

At Neil’s Harbor I almost missed the hospital, sorry, the health-care center. Buchanan Memorial Health Center.

But when I’d already cruised by it the same bell that warned me about Hat-Lady went off [that bell is priceless – the best part is it’s built in and doesn’t come with a plan]. I took a sweeping glance back, read some big letters on a wall and did a U-ey.

The bike came in with me and a chain-reaction got going among some nurses who see very few patients except a few customers awaiting oblivion in the terminal ward, or whatever they cal the dying-section.

Thank God for the Forces and the Canada-wide health card they gave me . Very little messing around.

A bed was found and one of the nurses got an IV going, poking me two or three times and saying the skin of my arm was like leather. Later she got another nurse to come in and they talked for bit while I lay there half-conscious, looked at the IV machine that I was hooked up too, pressed some buttons and shook their heads saying, ‘that’s not good.’

Always nice to hear when your hooked up to it.

“What’s not good?”

“Oh nothing, it’s just a new machine.”

“Hm.” I said.

Be in the army for a while and you tend to get numb to this stuff. Like getting vaccinated twice or three times because paperwork got lost. Or going out to look for bombs with your feet.

Funny thing was, the presiding doctor was out for a bike ride and came in to see me later in a sweaty green Arc’teryx shirt. In appearance and manner he was similar to Mr. Dave in NL.

My condition was confirmed: I had Gastro – capital G because if you’ve ever had it you know how much it sucks. This is a stomach thing you get from, for instance, possibly having shit on your hands. One of those travel things that happens. The good doc admitted me for the night, comanded a stool sample, commented on my Surly and asked how I liked it so far, then took off to finish his ride.

As if everyone wants to hear about stool samples [like I said, get a real hobby], one of the nurses provided me with a collection device and gave me instructions to which I nodded and smiled and then ignored. What are they going to use a sample for? Everyone knew what I had and by the time they got it back from the lab I’d be halfway to BC.

The best part was having a bed for the night. Mostly they left me alone, and with the lights shut I slept the sleep of death.

August 2, 2010

The axe-murder camp

By the way, while getting on the ferry at PAB I pulled the smoothest move ever. I’d busted out the camera to grab a picture while biking to the ferry, dropped the damn thing and ran it over. Oh yeah. Good test. It’s one off those Olympus waterproof-shockproof one’s and while it survived a war well enough it sure wasn’t allowed to survive me, in intact condition at least, for very long. Very few things do. If you want something broken give me a shout. I’ll come falling down a stairs towards you as soon as I can.

Kudos to Olympus though, their precious camera might be very banged up but it still caps a good shot, which is no credit to me: I just pull it out when I’m biking [hence, I drop it] and snap away, and once in a very small while I get a good pic out of a hundred or so.

Where was I going with this? I don’t know, but it seemed worth a mention. I’ve dropped it a lot since and the poor bugger’s still hanging on. Due to the massive opening in the camera-body I was led to assume its no longer water proof. But later I was photographing a toad in NS [yes!!] and dropped it again in a water-filled ditch. And it came out fine.

It was sunday and everything in North Sydney was closed. I’ve been here before and its not the kind of town I’d want to do a life-sentence in anyway, so I just kept on chugging.

It was bit of ride to English Town where Kevin had recommended I cross to The Cabot Trail. I stopped at a few gas stations and had some words with certain locals who looked at me doubtfully and said, ‘yeah English Town over there alright but you got a bit of a mountain to cross.’

The last guy I talked to, a shining example of stagnated teenage-hood beneath trucker-hat and undershirt and a pathetic attempt at facial hair was particularly adamant about my craziness. ‘Takes on to know one’, I though, looking at him.

He’d been filling someone’s tank at a place overlooking a river valley, and he pointed with a dooms-day look on his face at the other side and announced that I’d be crossing over Kelly’s Mountain.

“What mountain?”

I was just toying with him. This was too much fun.

“Kelly’s mountain,” He said, pointing. I looked.

“Where? I don’t see it.”

“It’s right there.”

“The hill?”

“It’s a mountain.”

The feature in question was a decent knob, I’ll give it that. After crossing a bridge I came to the sign: You are now at the base of Kelly’s mountain. You will climb 240 m in the next 7Km.

Jesus wept.

If only they knew.

The knob vanquished I carried on to the ferry at English Town, which is not a town at all, just a few houses and a post office. A lane off the highway leads to it. Blink and you’d miss it.

The ferry was one of these tiny river-crossing contraptions. The only reason there are any left is probably to provide a job or two in an economy that died with the fishery, and also because, in some parts of the country at least, they are considered a heritage thing.

I hadn’t looked at a map and had imagined more of a crossing but really it was matter of meters. A long pier had been built to meet the ferry on the other side.

Jersey Cove was more houses and a campground with a small store and I biked that night to Indian Brook. There was no sign telling the name, all I knew was what I saw: an old church for sale, a pizza shop [!] and an abandoned campsite by the beach.

I inquired at the pizza shop if this place was good to go, and a lady with wide eyes and middle age dumpinness who was working dough on a short counter told me, yeah, that place is really abandoned, set up where you want. Some ‘foreigners’ had bought the place a year or two ago and last summer the main admin building had mysteriously burnt down. The owners had vanished, perhaps with insurance money, and no great investigation was made.

Now remember I have no tent, so setting up for me meant spreading the sleeping bag and gathering firewood.

I’d picked a spot far in on the old property, right by the pebbly beach. Imagine a big field, wooden posts with deactivated electrical outlets distributed evenly, an empty swimming pool, broken swing-setts, a shower building showers with gaping dark doorways, and foundations of the burnt-down building. Give to this setting a rusty sunset coming through thickening rain clouds and a nice wind off the ocean that ripples leaves in a background of forest. The colours are a predominantly gray-green and orange. If the atmosphere wasn’t so moist the place would feel dusty.

This is that kind of post-apocalyptic site where the tired survivors would come in late at night and be brutally murdered. The spookiness was on the same plane as an abandoned theme park or a boarded up shopping mall.

There was a payphone nearby and for some reason it worked. I called the family and we talked for a bit and when I hung up the rain broke out. Fast rain. It was a hundred meter dash to the place where I’d meant to sleep and the gear was getting perforated by the time I reached it.

Another story short, I returned to the pizza place which was closing in half an hour, ordered a personal size and sat reading until the torrent which had grown to a monsoon size, had slightly subsided.

At the old church with the real estate sign there was an old gazebo and that’s were I ended up sleeping. The bench inside was acutely curved, but the floor was soaked so the options were slim.

At three in the morning I woke up to a wicked lightning storm, like something we’d see on the prairies.

The gods were fighting again. I lay awake for a long time and watched the celestial swords.

In places the roof was leaking, but I was mostly dry. It was one of those nights that both despite of and because of the circumstances was good, and very impressive on the memory.

August 2, 2010

Icebergs and Motorbikes

The insert worked fine. I write from Manitoba [guess I should’ve put in a spoiler alert: as you can see, the blog is behind but no, I’m not walking across Canada – I’m actually halfway home and still biking] and it’s still good.

I got up early, ate at A&W and took off as fast as I could. There’s very little between here and PAB [Port Aux Basques]. A few gas stations and that’s it. Stephenville is 60K of the highway so despite an invitation by an army aquaintance to go cause trouble, I said ‘no way in hell’.

I’d hoped to catch the evening ferry but that was a no-go. After an unstoppable meal of fish and chips and good conversation with an older Ontario couple, I peddled on into the darkness, and near PAB the land revived a bit. It was saturday night and people were everywhere driving their ATV’s, drinking, shooting guns. All that stuff we imagine hicks doing. It’s all true.

I was going good, almost at the ocean now, but had a blind moment against some headlights and hit a rock in the middle of the shoulder and blew an instant flat.

At three in the morning I arrived in PAB, another place I’ve been. I saw the rise where I’d camped in 2006,out of view of the town, but right on top of it. Remembered three days consuming nothing but orange juice and thinking about God and wondering about life and girls. Went hiking one day and found an old graveyard near the high-school which looked like a massive gray lego brick forgotten by a baby Godzilla at the top of a fortress-worthy hill.

There were graves from more than hundred years ago. Six foot graves and and three foot baby graves. The weathered white crosses were lilted, and many of them unreadable and un-maintained. Erosion was carrying them into the sea. The earth was eating its dead.

I ate at Timmy’s again. I’ll never get tired of Timmy’s but I’ll never love it like I used to. Fifty meters off the parking lot the land sank and grass was everywhere. I could lie there and someone would trip over me before they saw me.

At 0600 I woke up. Talked to some guys who’d just come off the boat with motorbikes. The ferry left at 0700. I climbed up on the deck as we sat at the moorings waiting to go. I was wearing the gray wool sweater that I got in Kerrisdale for eight bucks. War and Peace was tucked under my arm.

The crossing takes six hours, give or take and I spent most of it writing and answering emails over the on-board wifi.

Forty five minutes to the port at North Sydney I was engaged by a Kevin from the States. He’s been reading the blog, so Kevin, fear not, I’ll do you justice.

This is a middle-age man with a beard. A landscaper by trade and photographer by calling who lives in a renovated barn in Connecticut, rented out to him by his divorce lawyer. Who wouldn’t want that? I’d love to live in barn. That way I could finally stop giving police my standard ‘no fixed address’ answer when they wake me up for sleeping on lawns. It could also make a good funny if I ever left a door open and someone asked if I was raised in barn.

Anyway, Kevin wanted to know about my Ortliebs, the waterproof bags I got for the bike.

A stand-up guy who knows stand-up gear when he sees it, I took one look at Kevin and thought,’Here’s a man worth time and conversation.”

Seats were found and talk fell from our tongues without the need for un-profound filler [weather talk] between real topics. Kevin and I seemed to be very much of the same fabric: Travellers of the ethic that the more you know the less you need and all that life should really require is a set of good boots and a backpack, or perhaps in Kevin’s case a camera, and in mine, a journal. He was currently at the tail-end of a four month photography tour which had been mostly spent in the American deserts but had somehow ended in Newfoundland. In his lens he was now the proud owner of icebergs and other northern articles and he told me about a short but meaningful episode where he had found himself on an iceberg-watching boat.

It had been storming out that day and the only people up top were him, the captain and two adventurous ladies, one who brought out a bottle though it was only ten in the morning. The normal people, on vacation from their cars, dogs and 2.4 children all huddled below in the shelter of the cabin while the souls who were living life felt the spray of the wild waves and saw lightning rip the sky that Kevin, in his own words, described as something so magnificent that it threatened to draw tears. Sincerity is a virtue and for the half-hour I knew him Kevin was full of it. His description of the deep blue ice, the white of rougher surfaces, the green sea alive beneath them and the lightning searing the backround of low gray clouds and dark distance was writerly and beautiful. All I could think was, I know the place and feeling, and don’t you think we’re lucky that something gave us the will and guts to live in this full way while others huddle below?

Other discussion included a brief visit to my time in the Stan and more of Kevin’ travels including motorcycling on Route 66 and bringing dust and mesas to life through the aperture.

His mode of travel was now a van, one of these fully equipped ones, and I was jealous but not jealous all at the same time. Before coming up here he’d done Cabot trail, where I was going next and he had some good points concerning my route, the main idea being that I take a certain one-minute ferry from English Town to Jersey Cove to save myself a day of biking.

Shortly, N. Sydney came into view at the window and the engine noise changed. An announcement was made about vehicles and thence we parted ways.

Below deck I unlocked the bike. The mouth of the ferry, the whole front of the boat, lifted like a drawbridge. The air was different. Warmer and summer-like. Gone was the mist of The Rock.