Wednesday, 15 November 2017

Tinder in Toronto, A Saint in Vermont and Starlings in New York

Tuesday 26th September, New York, New York

This Blog post will cover the rest of my time in North America. Looking back on it, it has been the least inspiring chapter of my trip so far. At least in terms of the cycling itself. I barely have any photographs from the last two months. I will remember them much more for the people I met along the way than the scenery or cities I rode through. Gone was the indiscriminate excitement for the road that I had at the beginning of my trip. Missing were the breathtaking landscapes of the American West which preceded this segment.

I finished the last blog post somewhere in Wisconsin. From there I rode through a small part of Michigan, colloquially known as UP (upper peninsula). I’d heard that it was a pretty area from a few other cyclists I’d met. Maybe I didn’t take the best route because I don’t remember much of it. There is a cycle path that runs a long way around the shore of Lake Michigan. It has a generous shoulder for bikes but the road is busy and the scenery monotonous: Lakeshore, holiday cottages and boats with swathes of forest flanking the road.

After a few days, I crossed into Ontario at Sault St Marie. Once in Canada I mostly followed the Trans-Canadian Trail. It’s 24000km of multi-use trail spanning the breadth of the country. It includes every kind of surface. Some sections are along a highway with no shoulder, others are rough ATV trails. Most of what I rode were rural gravel roads through dense forest.

I quickly became a fan of the Canadian institution that is Tim Hortons. I would often pop into Timmy's for breakfast, where for around $6 I could get a bacon and egg bagel, hash browns and coffee. While there I could charge my devices, avail myself of free wifi, use the bathrooms and fill up on water for the day. When feeling like I deserve a treat (all the time), for a few pennies I could buy Timbits. If you imagine that a doughnut is made by punching out a hole from a solid disc of dough, Timbits are all those discarded middle bits of doughnut. They come in a multitude of flavours, but being in Canada, I felt that maple syrup was the only fitting choice.

Canada has a lot of crown (public) land where one is free to camp. Unfortunately it’s not clearly marked and knowing what is public and what is private can be difficult. As in the US, the Canadians are very fond of their “Keep Out”, “No Trespassing” and “Posted Land” signs. So much so that I often ended up assuming that if I didn’t see any signs telling me to keep out then it was probably public land.

Below is a picture of a little public access area I camped in overlooking a lake. There was a "No Camping" sign but I wasn’t going to find anything better before dark and it was raining heavily so I didn’t think anyone would be bothering me. The next morning the storm had passed and I had breakfast overlooking the still, glassy water.




Around a week into my time in Ontario, a spur of the moment decision (and a growing desperation for a shower) caused me to pull into a campground I'd spotted by a lake on the edge of a small town. I was greeted warmly and enthusiastically by Jim and Alyssa, the young couple running it. I learned that the campground was a not-for-profit family enterprise which was mainly a summer camp for families with kids with special needs, particularly autistic kids. They were very interested in my bike trip as it was something they’d considered doing themselves even though they had a 2-year-old child. Outside of the summer months, they worked as teachers. Through a combination of saving and exceptionally frugal living they hoped to retire or at least semi-retire in the next few years.

Opting out of the rat race and unshackling oneself from material possessions in order to live a more fulfilling and self-directed life seems to be a rising cultural tide in the West. The popularity of blogs such as Mr Money Mustache and the Tiny House Movement are testament to this. It’s not so much an explicitly countercultural lifestyle statement like the “Turn on, tune in and drop out” motto of the sixties, so much as a pragmatic and measured withdrawal from a default life of consumerism. The freedom to have money and own stuff is exchanged for the freedom subsist on a small income and to do what you want when you want.

As Jim, Alyssa and I talked, I found them as inspiring as they seemed to find me. The next day they fed me a fine breakfast and when it came time to leave they refused to accept any payment from me.

At the campground, I found out about the “Screaming Heads” sculptures near the town of Burk’s Falls which was on my way the following day. A local retired art teacher had spent 25 years building himself a fantasy castle on an old farm and surrounded it with a sculpture park containing giant monolithic concrete sculptures of distorted faces. I’ll let the pictures do the talking…














I have a couple of ex-work colleagues and friends who live in Toronto who I intended on trying to see when I passed through. One of them, Bernard, was spending the summer at his lakeside cottage on Lake Vernon near Huntsville, about three days ride north of Toronto. He kindly invited me to stay with him and his family when I passed through. I ended up spending three nights there enjoying the quintessential middle-class Torontonian summer: Kayaking on the lake, going out in the speedboat with the kids tubing and the adults wake-boarding behind. In the evening, dinner parties or barbecues and smores over a campfire overlooking the lake with friends and neighbours. It seems almost everyone in Toronto spends time at the lakes during summer. Those who can afford it own cottages, those who can’t get big groups together and rent them.

As Bernard and his family were staying at the cottage for another couple of weeks, he kindly let me stay in his empty house in Toronto while I was there. As a result, I ended up staying in the city for around ten days. I needed to wait a few days anyway to receive a replacement for my Tubus front rack which I’d managed to break in two places. I’m quite proud of breaking it; they are so sturdy that they come with a 30-year guarantee.

When I first arrived in Toronto, I stayed with a Warmshowers host called Rachael for a couple of days. Having use of Bernard’s house, I didn’t need to stay with her, but I’d already arranged it and she sounded cool so I wanted to meet her. She was as interesting and fun as I’d imagined and being a local she helped me get more out of the city than I would have done on my own. Rachael was yet another person I’ll remember fondly, even if I never see her again.

I also managed to catch up with my other work colleague Erik while I was there. He’d just returned from a family holiday in Nicaragua as the proud part owner of a brothel and bare-knuckle fighting ring!

My long stay in Toronto meant that I could also meet up with Ben, an old friend who was coincidentally there at the same time, sound engineering and managing a band on tour with Coldplay.


With Ben in Toronto


While in Toronto I made a day trip to visit Niagara Falls. I couldn’t come this close and not see such a famous world landmark. Surprisingly the falls are not that big, by which I mean not that tall. I’d seen several taller falls on this trip. They are big in terms of the volume of water that flows through them. Despite it being artificially restricted in order to prevent rapid erosion, the force of the water is palpable from a great distance. It was a raining on and off that day, but it was actually a good thing because I got to see the falls in different lights as the sun and the dark rain clouds took turns in colouring the scene.






The area couldn’t be more touristy, crowded and commercialised. It wasn’t really a must-see world wonder. Maybe I've just seen too many waterfalls in my life.

While in Toronto I went out on a Tinder date that epitomised my ambivalent relationship with that app. I was persuaded to give Tinder a go by someone I met on the road. In practice, it has been difficult to use because I’m not often in any one place long enough to meet anyone. Usually by the time I’ve matched with someone I’m halfway to the next town. It’s only really been viable when I’m in a city for more than a couple days. In Japan (the first country I used it in) I had a few disasters that almost put me off for good. Then one good experience that left me hopeful. Since then, in Australia, New Zealand and North America I’ve almost given up on it several times, resenting the amount of time it wastes, and then once in a while, there’ll be a meeting that gives me pause.

On this particular occasion, the conversation leading up to the meeting had been promising. The woman I'd been exchanging messages with was of Armenian extraction, had grown up in Iran and had emigrated to Canada a couple of years ago. That in itself made her interesting to me. As soon as I saw her, as is often the case, she was much older in real life than I had been led to believe from her profile and not at all physically attractive to me. Lots of people use Tinder exclusively for meeting people to have casual sex with. Although that’s always nice when it happens, who doesn't like sex after all, I don’t have any expectations when I meet someone through it. I’m happy to use it as a way to meet interesting people too. Even if I never see them again, as is almost certainly going to be the case when using it while travelling, if it leads to meeting someone interesting and spending a pleasant evening with them, that’s still a worthwhile use of my time.

We met in a bar and talked for an hour or so over a couple of drinks. I enjoyed listening to her story and her perspective on her home country and on living in Canada. Then we came to a fork in the evening. It was time to call it a night or to move on to the next place. Next to the bar was a music venue which had been recommended to me by a friend who’d grown up in Toronto. They were having a night of industrial techno music which promised to be just my bag. It wasn’t the kind of place to go to on a date though. The lady I was with definitely wouldn’t have appreciated it and in any case we wouldn’t have been able to speak to each other inside. The music would have been too loud. If I was going to go, it would be on my own to listen to the music and to dance, not to shout over it while trying to get to know a stranger.

I should have ended the date there. If I had, I think I would have been happy with it as a pleasant chat with a local with an interesting background. I felt that we’d probably exhausted the conversation between us and now I would rather be next door having a Toronto club experience. I’m not sure why I suggested we go to have another drink somewhere else. Maybe after only an hour, it seemed a bit rude to cut it short, we were getting on well after all. Or maybe subconsciously I was holding out for the possibility of sleeping with her, even though I didn’t really fancy her at all. When I considered that later, it made me feel abject and desperate. Apart from the wasted time, I think this is what I dislike most about using dating apps.

Apps like Tinder lay bare the extent to which one’s behaviour is pathetically enslaved to the biological imperative to have regular sex (i.e. being a guy) and provide a stage for the foolishness that follows from it. Travelling for an extended period on one’s own compounds the problem. Bouts of loneliness swept under the carpet and a dearth of intimacy and physical contact aggregate over time, nudging one to seek a quick fix in the slippery solace of ephemeral sexual encounters.

The date night went downhill from that point on. As she was the local, I let her lead me around. She was partial to flashy bars or clubs to which people queue to get in and then pay exorbitant prices for drinks just so they can be seen there. Not my kind of places at all. Then the more she revealed about herself the more I realised how incompatible we were. She turned out to be a Trump-supporting conservative and although she didn’t seem to be particularly religious in practice, she identified very strongly with her Armenian Christian heritage. She was wearing lots of makeup and perfume, both big turn-offs for me. As the evening wore on, her aggressive scent and illiberal views increasingly grated on me. I wished I was better at extricating myself from situations such as these. I spent the next couple of hours struggling to make conversation that I wasn’t interested in having, sitting in places in which I didn’t want to be and paying for drinks that I couldn’t afford. I’m not sure if she would have slept with me, but I felt like I managed to salvage some dignity by not trying to make that happen and eventually going home alone.

From Toronto I had several days ride to Ottawa along the Trans-Canadian Trail which was mostly made up of flat gravel paths through lake-strewn forests.




It was on one of these quiet paths that I met Julie. She was from Vancouver and riding across the country visiting friends and family along the way. She was travelling super light and covering huge distances every day. In her twenties and used to doing endurance races, she would regularly clock up over 200km per day. I met her in the morning and she’d already done 100km. She was hoping to cover another 140km that afternoon. To put that into perspective my longest days, pedalling all day on flat roads, have only been around 140km. We talked for a while but despite the fact that we were going in the same direction there was no point trying to cycle together, she would leave me behind in no time.

A couple of hours later I reached a small hamlet with a park where I hoped to get a water refill and stop for a bite to eat. I saw Julie was there having stopped to rest and eat too. We got some ice cream and talked a bit more before cycling on together. I was expecting her to leave me behind but she cycled slowly at my pace and we enjoyed the trail together for a few hours to the next town.

There were only a couple of hours of daylight left. We both needed to stop at a grocery store. I’d spotted a perfect camp spot in a sheltered clearing in an abandoned railway siding about 10 minutes ride before to town. Julie was going to continue until dark and make some more distance. As we were about to go inside the grocery store, a lady came over to talk to us asking about where we were riding from and to. It turned out that Paula, the lady, was a cycle tourist too. She lived in a house only a minute’s walk from where we were standing and invited us to camp in her garden and use her shower. I didn’t need asking twice and immediately agreed. Julie was in two minds. She clearly wanted to take Paula up on her offer, but it would mean having to cycle 270km the next day to get to Montreal in time for a party being put on in her honour. Paula’s offer was too good to turn down and seemed like fate, so she decided to stay and get up at first light to ride a huge day (even by her formidable standards).

We had a lovely evening with Paula and her 90-year-old dad who was staying with her. I wasn’t awake to see Julie leave. As I rode away after being fed a fine breakfast by Paula and being packed off with lots of treats, I reflected on the previous day. This has happened so many times now, yet it touches me on each occasion and puts me in a good mood for a long time afterwards. The kind of good mood that breeds bonhomie towards everyone I come across for as long as it lasts. This state of being was almost entirely unknown to me before this trip. But then so was meeting random strangers who invite you into their homes, feed you and share their stories with you.

I thought about Julie too. I felt connected to her in a way that I would normally expect to take months not hours. Someone who, if we lived in the same city, could become a close friend, not just another acquaintance. I don’t feel like that about everyone I meet, but every once in a while I meet someone who I resonate with so intensely that saying goodbye feels like dropping a just-found pearl back in the sea. Despite exchanging Facebook and Instagram details, I knew I’ll probably never see her again. I’ve had to get used to this feeling.

Before my trip I read a blog post by Laura Moss written from the US while on her own round-the-world bike trip with her husband Tim Moss, author of the popular website TheNextChallenge. The principal point of the post was about how travelling by bike exposes you to memorable encounters with local people in way that other forms of travel don’t. The bike is as much a vehicle for social interaction as it is a means of locomotion. Laura’s well-written blog post is well worth a read: It’s all about the bike (because it’s all about the people), the message will be a familiar one to readers of this blog or any other bike travel related blog out there.

My next stop was Ottawa, where I spent a couple of days sightseeing. I’d left it to the last minute to organise a Warmshowers or Couchsurfing host. I managed to find a Warmshowers host for my first night (the lovely Denise and Scott), but for the second night I stayed in an AirBnB. During the day I’d been to an imaginative and ambitious art installation called Kontinuum. It was a kind of immersive multimedia experience housed in the subterranean bowels of a new light rail transit station that’s in the process of being built. You walk around the half-built station and tunnels while lasers, 3D scans of passers-by and futuristic projections illuminate the space around you.

Either during the bag check at Kontinuum or at the AirBnB, I had my Kindle and fancy Oakley sunglasses stolen. I’ve been pretty lucky so far and not had anything stolen with the exception of the camping gear that fell off my bike and I wrote about in my last post. For almost two and half years on the road and a fairly lax attitude to security, I think that’s not bad going. While it was annoying and I was down about it for a day or two (especially about the Kindle, which I’d only just replaced a couple of weeks earlier after my last one broke), I let the useless anger go. It’s only stuff after all.

I used to be quite cynical about people. This trip, to my surprise, has instated in me a default trust of human beings, or at least a presumption of goodwill on their part unless I see evidence to the contrary. I’ve come to the conclusion that life is better lived free from paranoia, fear and omnipresent suspicion at the expense of occasionally (and it really is very occasionally) leaving myself vulnerable to being taken advantage of by the unscrupulous. I’d rather lose a Kindle or a fancy pair of sunglasses once in a while but live in a world inhabited by good people, than save those things but live behind the shadow of wariness, my mood tainted by mistrust.

Before leaving Ottawa, I checked out the nightly light show projected onto the famous parliament buildings. It’s a very cheesy 30-minute film commemorating Canada’s history as part of the country’s 150th-anniversary celebrations. The spectacle was great though, despite the cheese.




From Ottawa I crossed into Quebec. As soon as one crosses the river the difference is noticeable. Even while still within the city limits some people would struggle to speak English. Quebec is very bike friendly, more so than Ontario. I found lots of dedicated bike paths and campsites with special cheap rates for cyclists. This made for a very pleasant ride all the way into Montreal, which itself turned out to be a very bikeable city. I stayed in Montreal for three days. Everyone who lives in or visits Montreal seems to like the city. I’d been there once before, but in the depths of winter so I got a much better impression of it this time. There’s a huge amount of construction going on but it doesn’t occlude they city’s charm. There’s a thriving street art culture of which the photos below are a small sample.








And here’s a view of the city from the Parc du Mont-Royal…




From Montreal I headed south, back into the US, through Vermont. By comparison to what I’d been riding through in Ontario and Quebec, Vermont was much prettier and less monotonous. The hills were bigger and afforded nice views at the top. In Ontario and the small section of Quebec I rode through, there was a lot of up and down, but I never reached much of a vantage point. At best there would be a clearing overlooking a lake.

The hills of Vermont were punctuated by quaint ‘old’ New England towns. The flatter areas around the towns would often support small farms surrounding attractive homesteads. Apart from the mid-sized town of Burlington, characterised by its studenty, arty and progressive population, the rest of Vermont is green and rural with a few small towns scattered about.

New England is famous for its fall colours. I was just a little too early to see them in their full glory, but I could see the leaves starting to change at the fringes hinting at what was to come.






One evening I was struggling to find somewhere to camp as all the land I was riding through was private. I passed through a small village and saw some people milling about around a church so I asked them if the pastor was around. One of the kind ladies walked me over to his house and introduced me to Marty, their clearly beloved pastor. He welcomed me as if I were a long-lost friend.

Sometimes one gets an intuition about people within the first few seconds of meeting them that is so strong it feels almost supernatural. I don’t believe in the supernatural, but when I try to account for such intuitions by considering appearances, body language, context, my own predispositions and projections, somehow the sum seems greater than its parts. So it was in the case of Marty. I knew, with an unaccountable certainty that here was a good man. No, a saintly man. I’ve often heard stories told of the seemingly beguiling charisma of some saintly men. The Dalai Lama for example. It may have been a mirage of my own making, but nevertheless, I felt as if in the presence of a saint.

Marty took me into his home and introduced me to his family and visiting friends. We talked for a while about all sorts of things. As usual in these situations, the question of religion and spirituality came up. Marty asked if he could pray for me. Not as if for some lost soul, but as if casting a blanket of grace and providence over a departing brother. He believed that God had put me in his path for a reason; either for his sake or for mine, perhaps for both. I had only asked him for permission to pitch my tent somewhere, but of course he found something better, opening up a building belonging to the church where I could take a shower and put out my sleeping things indoors next to a heater.

The next morning, shortly after I’d got back on the road, I heard back from Tara and Tyler of goingslowly.com. I’d read and hugely enjoyed their blog of their bike trip prior to starting my own. Tara has written the definitive foodie’s guide to cooking on the road called Bike. Camp. Cook. which I’d read, reread and internalised during my trip. I knew that since they’d finished their bike trip, they’d bought a bit of land in rural Vermont and built their own off-grid homestead on it. So I’d sent them a message to see if it was possible to meet them. When I heard back from them, inviting me to camp out at their place, it was only a small 100km detour to get there. One I was more than happy to make. You can see photos and details of their home-built home on their blog so I won’t reproduce that here. Visiting them was another meeting of like-minded souls that I’ll remember fondly long after this trip is over. It also got me thinking about the possibility of contriving my own off-grid lifestyle.

I rode for a few more days across Vermont and New Hampshire to my friend Gino’s place in Dover, New Hampshire, almost on the Atlantic coast. Just a few hours before reaching his house my gear cable frayed so badly I could no longer change gears. Afterwards I realised how lucky I was that it happened there, where he could pick me up in his car. When I later replaced the cable at his place I realised I hadn’t had all the tools I needed to do the job.

I stayed at Gino’s place for five days, during which he took me to Boston and around Dover and nearby Portsmouth, treating me to more fancy meals and hipster coffees than I’ve had in the whole rest of my trip put together. Being on the New England coast, oysters and lobster featured heavily on culinary agenda. I was running short on time in the US. The ride from Dover to New York (my final destination in the US) didn’t look particularly interesting, so we hatched a plan where Gino would drive us and our bikes to New York and hang out there for the weekend with me. The plan included a stopover at Martha’s Vineyard where we would spend a day exploring on our bikes.

Unfortunately, the passing hurricanes had suspended the ferry service. We made do with riding around some pretty trails in a forest somewhere near Falmouth where we stayed for the night. The next day we stopped off The Breakers, an ostentatious Italian Renaissance style mansion built in the late 19th Century by the Vanderbilt family (a prominent New England railroad magnate). Although garish by today’s standards, its money no object, built to dazzle architecture and decor are undeniably impressive and the self-guided tour was well worth taking.

I’d been to New York a few times before so it was nice not to have the pressure of trying to tick off all the ‘must-see’ places you would go to on a first visit. While in New York I stayed with my little brother who lives there and who I hadn’t seen in the flesh for a few years. The weather was fine so we did a lot of walking around the city.


Brooklyn Bridge


View from The High Line


With Gino around for the first couple of days in New York, there were plenty more fancy coffees and fine meals, including a splendid one at Eataly: A kind of giant department store of Italian food with a couple of restaurants thrown in. There are a few of them in the US and a couple in NYC. The one we went to was in the Oculus, the rebuilt World Trade Centre train station with a multi-level shopping mall built-in. Not everyone likes the bold architecture, but personally I loved it. I’ve always been a fan of the curvy, gleaming sci-fi aesthetic. The building itself is a kind of adjunct to the 9/11 memorial. I read that it was supposed to represent a dove, I wouldn’t have guessed from looking at it, but it looked cool all the same.


Inside the Oculus


New York is one of those cities which feels like a self-contained universe. Anything is possible there and everything can be found. The compactness of Manhattan makes all imaginable and unimagined possibilities seem within reach. It’s a city which invites one’s imagination to run, frenzied and panting, through its streets, up its skyscrapers and along its subterranean arteries. Dreams scuttle like hungry rats among the dumpsters and the penthouses, salivating at the stories they might tell. The streets may not be paved with gold for everyone, but they are lined with those very American of treasures: hope and optimism. For me, New York is the place in the US that most represents the American Dream. It may be a bankrupt dream, but in New York people from the world over still dream it. It’s the place they go to release their caged aspirations. And if you look over the city at dusk you can see them flock there like a murmuration of freed starlings.


Watching the sunset over The East River from my brother's terrace...