Long before I pushed my first pedal across Canada, I was a small-town, southern Ontario, pre-2000s child. Steadfast in my refusal to learn how to ride a bicycle. Fearful of the unfamiliar feeling of balancing on two wheels. Afraid of most unknowns, really.
This is where my story begins.
Indeed, I was a child. Gifted with my own unique blend of strengths, weaknesses, talents, and shortcomings. Eccentricities, too. One of the most glaring of which was an uncompromising stubbornness to do much of anything I hadn’t chosen. And, as a child, I did not want to ride a bike.
As I begin to reflect on my ride from Victoria to St. John’s, I remain fascinated and humbled by my decision to embark on this small journey.
Bike across Canada?
Funny how I ever felt drawn to this choice.
I was nurtured and raised in a beautiful, non-descript town that could be conquered on two wheels in under five minutes. No stoplights or signs to slow your pace. Faster to ride than run. This was my childhood place.
From a young age, I was expected to acquire the basic skill of riding a bicycle. My two older brothers, along with all of our friends, had learned to ride too many years prior. Rolling and wandering all over our little community.
Approaching the brink of pre-pubescence, I had yet to join them. Beyond my tenth birthday, at least. As I pondered which brother’s deodorant I’d begin stealing from the bathroom shelf, I remained unable to balance on a bicycle. An outlier in my family and town.
In truth, I was the master of this fate. Over and over again, I chose to follow this path. I was terrified of falling off a bike. If I lean even closer to this truth, I’ll admit that I harbored a greater fear of the failure that would erupt within after each spill. Better to run upright than ride and fall, I figured. Failure was never an option for my young self. A small, entitled fool, I know.
These childish fears closely aligned with my extreme stubbornness. I committed to an irrational determination to prevent my parents from ever letting go of my seat, and I never wavered from this decision. I wasn’t willing to endure the struggles and falls that would transpire before I could balance atop two wheels. Man, I was a stubborn child. Wildly uncompromising. Still remain so, in many ways. This is a rooted truth of mine. I’ve merely learned to better harness these traits as I’ve grown, I suppose.
Scared and stubborn. My childhood recipe for fighting against most of the new and challenging in this world.
For years, I was directed by my fear and rigidity to spurn my father’s intentions to teach me how to ride. From the earliest roots of my memories, I felt the intense desire for control over my life. Too young to understand this drive. Just an innate will to feel that precious form of power.
Time and again, I declined every request to learn to ride a bike. I refused to even try. Every summer, for many summers, my father inevitably relented.
Alas, this particular control of mine was fleeting. [Like every other, really. Control of any kind offers no more than a perpetually tenuous grip. That’s a slippery beginning into another story, though. Back to the memories of this one.]
My determination to never ride, or try anything against my own will, was turned on its head during a mid-summer’s day, soon after my tenth birthday. I’ve carried the memory ever since, holding the thread of this memory, ever-connected, into the moment I’m currently traveling along.
Over time, I’ve become immensely grateful for the important lessons and vivid remembrances of biking for the first time on that mid-summer’s day. This experience became a foundation for every new challenge I would embrace later on. In the moment, though, I was a child. Scared and stubborn. Immature and yet to truly grow.
Bike across Canada?
First, I had to confront my fears of riding at all.
Every memory begins amidst something. Nothing in this life begins from nothing. No moment or memory exists in isolation. Always something to draw from, to connect.
The outer edges of this particular story arrive with the feeling of intense fear. This memory opens with my father summoning me away from some forgotten game with my brothers on the front lawn. He said nothing beyond a word.
A bicycle protruded out of the trunk of his car, the engine already ignited. Both front-seat doors opened wide.
I was being ambushed.
Fear, man. Rose to the fore within. The unforeseen kind that grows suddenly in my throat. An unforgiving feeling that can’t be swallowed down. Gotta deal with it, somehow. Freeze, fight, or flee.
My father offered no questions or conversation. Nothing more. All he needed was a single word. My first given name. The rest of the scene painted his intentions blue-skies clear. Immediately, I refused.
I’m not going.
For years, I’d successfully avoided his sincere requests. Sulk and sob till he lovingly relented. The child’s fight. My twisted form of control. Nice try, Pops. I’ve got this covered. Let’s do this again next summer. Instinctively, I resorted to my familiar act, expecting my father to eventually give in.
This time, though, I could sense no light, no escape.
In the moment, I felt blindsided. Upon reminiscence, my dad’s plan was brilliantly orchestrated. I was offered no warning. No way out, and I didn’t know where we were going. Everything was already in place. The car. My brother’s bike. He’d waited until the weekend to execute his plan. Time was not on my side.
From a child’s mind, this felt cruel. Diabolical. He allowed for no negotiations. Only the front doors of his Grand-Am wide-open.
My well-intentioned enemy persisted in his quiet demands until I felt I had no other choice. I was stunned. Terrified. He was my father. One of my heroes. I couldn’t resist any longer. I was a child, after all. Fated to follow his lead, for better and worse. For the first time, I stopped refusing. I froze.
I’d won every previous battle. Suddenly, he was winning the war.
I dragged my feet to the passenger’s side and collapsed into the front seat. Never looking in his direction. Just down. Defeated. He had me. As we drove out of the driveway, my brothers were still playing on the front lawn, unaffected by my sudden departure. I sat silent, tears in my eyes. A passenger to my own demise.
We moved forward along our street. Finally, I snapped out of my frozen state. I pleaded desperately with my dad to reconsider his plan. With every response, he didn’t budge. No raised voices or scolding. Just, gentle.
No, Josh. We’re going.
We drove along the town’s quiet main road into the countryside. Farmer’s fields in every direction. No words to break the silence. Not even the radio. Brilliant. Diabolical.
Childproof locks were enforced. I wasn’t sufficiently brave or insane to try the tuck-and-roll, anyway. I could only nervously tug on the over-the-shoulder seatbelt I’d habitually buckled.
This is happening.
Ten minutes and one turn later, we had reached the next town. We parked at the high school I would attend a few years and deodorant sticks later. I had never felt so far away from home. Too young to drive. Too distant to walk. My only refuge was rattling ominously in the trunk. Well–played, Pops.
With the engine turned off, tears intensified to flowing streams down my face. My father exited the car and started to walk the bike toward the school’s expansive field, calmly ignoring my final pleas for some measure of consultation.
I’ll learn at home, I swear! Another day, please!
Just let me go this time and I’ll do it! Anything!
Fear trembled within. I sobbed audibly. Slowly, I exited the car and followed a short distance behind his lead, till I stood ragged on the school’s gravel-coated track.
My father gently let the bike down to the ground and walked silently to the grass of the interior, well out of reach to save me from any unforeseen spills.
No control. I was offered only one realistic choice:
Defy my longstanding fears and stubbornness and, finally, try.
This is happening.
I scanned the scene all around. Mostly quiet. Only a few witnesses, at least. I perched myself atop my brother’s old ten-speed and rested my right foot on the pedal.
Finally, my dad raised his voice, barking instructions from afar. I tuned him out. I wasn’t listening. My childish revenge for being brought here. I’m not giving you the satisfaction of helping me figure this out. My stubbornness still proved strong.
With a hesitant push off my left foot, I was in motion. For the first time in my life, I was rolling on two wheels. A new form of forward momentum. An unfamiliar feeling prevailed all over. I didn’t know how to react.
I was too scared to pedal. A frozen child, bracing immediately for my inevitable crash to the ground. My first ride lasted about four seconds before I tumbled down.
The skin of my right knee was scraped to the tiniest degree, but I gave my father the over-the-top performance he was dreading. The world would suffer alongside me, with every exaggerated scream. I was ten years old, but I didn’t sound a day over three. I was a public embarrassment. Unashamed. Willing to endure the disgrace of crying uncontrollably over another failure of falling. I was determined to end this torturous lesson on my terms.
You’ve proven your point. Let’s go home.
Alas, my attempts to escape weren’t acknowledged, let alone entertained. My father remained still. Stoic.
He offered his insistence quietly. No give on his side. Control felt out of reach.
With my throat still pulsing from the excessive howling, I lumbered to my feet, screeching loudly as I picked up the bike. My nightmare will be your nightmare, you monster.
Yet again, no response from my father. Brilliant.
With no other options, finally, I began to surrender to the only one. Keep trying. After years of stubborn resistance, I was conceding. I’d been firmly guided into this unchosen challenge, and, for the first time, I ventured to push through. I went for it.
And, so, off I rode. Time after time. Again and again.
Two tries. Three. Four. Five.
Each attempt was punctuated by a clumsy fall to the gravel, a collection of small stones sticking to my palms to mark each struggle. With every failure, my dad never moved. He stayed true to his quiet, authoritative pose. Gradually, my post-fall screams dwindled to frustrated groans. My tears crusted and dried, my scrapes reddened and faintly burned.
My responses were changing. With every fall – every failure – my feelings slowly turned.
The stubbornness which had protected me from this path for so long was now beginning to assume a different form. For the first time in my life, I felt consciously resolute in confronting a crippling fear. The allure of feeling closed and scared was diminishing; instead, I was feeling increasingly driven by grit and resilience. My stubbornness was finally connecting to a productive light. Rather than flipping off my father within, my inner profanities centered on my own pride. Emergent thoughts of piss off, Bike, refrained. I wasn’t going to stop until I won.
Six tries. Seven. Eight. More.
Minutes passed. Failures accumulated. I stopped counting my tries, but I was traveling further and further along the track before losing balance. I felt brief moments of control on the bike. I was getting closer. I was nearly there. I could feel it.
Ride. Fall. Piss off. Repeat.
One more time, I began to ride down the backstretch of the track, pedaling cautiously, focusing every fiber on staying above the ground. This time, I remained atop my brother’s bike. I felt an uneasy balance. My father must have noticed, too.
Keep pedaling, Josh.
To a tepid beat, I pedaled down the backstretch of the track. My first turn. I rounded the long corner, slightly weaving left and right unsteadily along the gravelly ground.
I entered the homestretch, gaining speed. My caution waned, my confidence lifted. My dad was planted around the end of the next turn. I had to make it.
Pedaling with greater frequency, I completed a second turn. My dad was smiling, still not moving. Arms still crossed. He seemed to expect his scraped-up, cycling son to stop near his side.
Our eyes met. Then, my stubbornness took over, once more.
I rode past my father, cycling around the track for a second lap, with an improved sense of balance. The motion felt liberating. I didn’t want this newfound feeling to end. What took so long?
Three laps later, finally, I stopped. Bouncing over the gravel to the grass, I coasted to my father’s side. Both of us grinning enthusiastically.
I’d won. Well, we won, for different reasons.
As I slow to a stop, the lights quickly dim. The memory fades from vivid to nothingness. Not nothing, of course. Just somewhere else beyond my memory’s reach. All that remains are the emotions I still embrace. In that moment, I felt victorious. I’d finally reigned over my fear of riding. My first significant memory of growth and resilience.
Upon reminiscence, I feel love. For myself. For my dad. For a little victory that has endured in my mind to this day. With every nostalgic return to this experience, lumps collect in my throat. They arise for more than fear, I suppose.
The remaining years of my childhood and adolescence allowed for memories of riding alongside my brothers and friends. Never with a helmet. Never outside of town. Never through a stoplight or sign. About a ten-minute roundtrip in every direction. Familiar. Easy. Light.
After leaving my childhood home for university and a young career, in every place I lived, I continued to ride my bicycle for only short spurts of distance and time. From campus to home. From home to work and back again. Never with a helmet. Never for longer than the length of my childhood town. Always familiar, easy, and light.
Bike across Canada? Why?
Why does anybody try anything difficult and new? The meanings and fulfillment of this challenge felt worth pursuing. An essential lesson I first began to learn on that memorable mid-summer’s day.