Waking up in Canmore, I rose to my final day with mountain views. From Canmore, I set a goal to reach Calgary in the late-afternoon. Then, I would rest Sonja for two full days. My first prolonged stay with familiar faces; old connections from my childhood days. I’d encountered only strangers since I left Vancouver. I could hardly wait for this break.
As I waited to cross the first stoplight of my ride out of Canmore, my world was confronted by a surprising twist. An unexpected beginning to my day.
For the first time, I saw a fellow touring cyclist.
My unfamiliar riding brother held fort at a road-dividing island, facing the left-turning lane as drivers passed him by. A bike holding four black panniers, two large and two small, rested on the island’s ground behind him. He wore black and tattered clothes. He was holding a cardboard sign, asking for food or change.
When the light turned green, I dismounted Sonja and walked across the road, frantically wondering what to do. I felt momentarily distracted, pondering the notion of connecting my ride to another. I’d become used to riding alone, protective of the accomplishments and breakthroughs I had collected on my own. Cycling with someone else, according to my own twisted logic, might contaminate the spirit of this journey of mine.
Should I stop and chat? Should I wave politely and push on?
Before I could decide on how I approached, the rider noticed my presence and lowered his sign. My fellow cyclist asserted his place in our connection without pause. Over the traffic noise, he initiated a brilliantly brief and decisive exchange. Fuelled with uncertainty, I followed his lead:
Yeah. Going to Calgary?
I’ll go with ya.
Let’s do it.
Done. A choice made. No chance for hesitations. No turning back. This ride was no longer solely mine. Deal with it.
Thirty seconds later, with his cardboard sign discarded into a roadside recycling bin, Wildman and I began our ride to Calgary together, familiarizing ourselves with the other along the way. We discovered our roads travelled from Victoria to Canmore were the same. I had started my journey slightly earlier. Wildman had been riding more ambitiously, pedaling through the mountains at a faster pace.
Wildman and I ventured along the winding roads leading away from the mountains. He quietly imposed his presence as the faster, more determined one. For the first time, I felt compelled to ride in friendly competition. I could barely keep pace. Wildman wore proper cycling shoes and fitted his bike with pedal clips. He rode ahead most of the way. With proper shoes and clips, I may have kept closer behind his lead, though I’m confident the outcome wouldn’t have changed.
We realized quickly our partnership would be a one-day deal, as Wildman’s intentions to race across the Prairies conflicted with my arrangements to break for two days in Calgary.
East of Canmore, the highway periodically twists back, toward the easternmost edges of the mountains. With every westerly turn, my memories were stirred. The act of moving away from the snow-covered peaks felt strange at first. I’d grown used to moving through the mountains. Into them. In those brief moments of rare harmony, with them. Slowly and certainly, I was now moving away from them. Momentary turns toward the mountains and my previous days offered a jarring view, as the snow-capped wonders ceded more and more space in my views.
The hills rolled easier, the paths ahead lay flatter. The horizon felt more accessible despite its growing distance. The sky grew down and opened wide. Like curtains drawing open, my world expanded all around. We were crossing into a new landscape. Another collection of scenes I’d never before seen.
Wildman wore no helmet. He sported a wilted mohawk, greasy hair falling to one of his head’s shaven sides. Wildman demonstrated a keen photographic eye, focusing on both the near and far. First, he stopped to snap pictures of the gradually disappearing mountains. A few minutes later, he ducked into the roadside shrubs to capture the early spring blooms. Before Wildman, I’d focused mainly on the larger pictures. The entire scene, except my own face for those Allison Pass selfies. I’d rarely thought to recognize and admire and connect the myriad pieces within. I appreciated Wildman’s acute sense for perspectives.
Wildman smoked at every stop. Even during a quick piss off the side of the road, he would light and dangle a dart from his pursed lips. An old habit he didn’t bother to hide. But, man, he was fit. Fast; consistently so.
Wildman spoke in few words, though his mind seemed to run constantly on high, his eyes revealing an enigmatic depth and wisdom I couldn’t yet decipher. He didn’t own a phone and refused to carry purchasing plastic. Wildman was off-grid and cash only. He was openly detached from the familiar tethers of society. His chosen darkness, I suppose. A path in life I’d never encountered, let alone contemplated.
Dude was fascinating. I’d never met anyone like him. I rapidly embraced our connection that day, silently regretting my initial hesitance to break from riding alone.
As we ate lunch in Cochrane, Wildman admitted he was tempted to rest in Calgary, too. He confided that he had a serious case of sore-ass. Wildman was completely out of money, and the next familiar connections in his life resided in Red Lake, an isolated town in northwestern Ontario, nearly two-thousand kilometres away. Wildman was driven to conquer the Prairies and turn off the Trans-Canada to Red Lake, which resided horizons north of the main highway. He aimed to find work up there for a few days before returning south and continuing east with the money he’d have made.
My story was different. My body wasn’t notably sore. I hadn’t felt too aggravated by Sonja’s seat, and I felt certain I wasn’t stronger than Wildman. Between drags, he admitted to never wearing bike shorts. There’s the reason. Of course. In Victoria, I had purchased two pairs, with the underside cushioned for long-distance riding.
As we prepped our respective bikes for the next stretch, I offered my extra pair of bike shorts to Wildman. Having accumulated a modest stash of savings, I added a few bills inside the shorts, too.
Wildman didn’t succumb to the usual dance of intuitive refusal. He accepted immediately, either unwilling to abide by cultural norms, or unbearably wanting and sore. Possibly both. I handed him the shorts and cash to close the deal.
Wildman disappeared with the shorts around the building wall our bikes were resting upon. In the next moment, he reemerged wearing the shorts, thankful and ready to go.
We set out to finish our shared trek to Calgary. Fittingly, Wildman raced ahead, as per our quickly established routine.
Moments later, though, our paths unexpectedly diverged.
As we approached the arduous hill winding up and out of Cochrane, I noticed a red pick-up truck honking repeatedly from the other side of the highway. My hosts had driven from Calgary to meet me along the road. I stopped and waved ecstatically. Wildman, further ahead, didn’t seem to notice, and he continued to race on. I tried yelling his way. He was already too far ahead and focused on building momentum to climb the hill.
I felt I had to stop. Familiar faces. I turned around and met the red truck at the previous intersection. Just like that, Wildman was gone. Our connection felt too brief. But, I felt more drawn to old connections.
Catch-up conversations and a stroll around town in the afternoon sun ensued. My friends insisted on putting Sonja in the back of their pick-up for the ride to Calgary. I recalled my showdown with the old man and woman on Allison Pass. Circumstances were totally different, but the same feeling reigned. I gotta do this myself. My first reprieve was less than two hours east, along the western reaches of the Great Plains. No more passes to summit. Following the briefest moment of temptation, I politely declined and assured my hosts I’d meet them in the city.
Calgary. My first extended resting place. I lived comfortably over the next two days. Showers, food, beer, and a small collection of needed gear. Luxurious living, no doubt. I felt resoundly grateful for the easygoing generosity of familiar connections.
I cleaned and tuned Sonja. I hadn’t thought to collect emergency supplies for Sonja before the Rockies; I finally stocked up for any simple malfunctions she might suffer. An obvious measure of foresight I’d lacked in Victoria. Better late than never, I figured.
I didn’t perch myself atop Sonja for my entire stay. I recharged. All the while, though, an underlying restlessness persisted. I felt increasingly anxious, pulled to return to my new normal.
In the meantime, Wildman pushed ahead. Though we were following the same roads, our adventures were distinct. I wondered of the reasons for Wildman’s journey. No phone, no plastic. No trace. Solo. I struggled to comprehend the meanings he sought on these roads. More and more, I learned I was craving to understand my own.