With a reenergized body and mind, I bid farewell to my Calgary hosts and returned to the road.
Though I didn’t leave my hosts’ townhouse until late-afternoon, I was intent on biking to Drumheller by that same evening, well over one-hundred kilometres to the northeast.
Inevitably, a spectacularly beautiful evening became spoiled by my decision to race against the setting sun. I lost, handily. Day turned to night, and I remained barely on the short side of thirty kilometres away from town.
I pedalled in the dark during my final hour on the road. No bike lights. Only reflectors. Under the early night’s sky, I became a scarcely noticeable rider asking for his comeuppance by every passing vehicle.
The night’s onset also swiftly plummeted the temperature. Battling a brisk head-wind, I felt the gradual freezing of my face and hands. A bitter re-introduction to the many uncontrollable challenges on two wheels. I pushed on along Highway 9, utilizing my re-fuelled energy stores and patience from resting in Calgary.
As I finally approached Drumheller, the highway followed a steep hillside down into an even colder valley. The final descent felt wildly fast and exhilarating, a rapid drop into the night that made for one of my most hair-raising, white-knuckle rides yet – mountains included. My hands formed a death-grip on the handlebars as I navigated the twists and turns without even a glimmer of light to guide my ride more than a second’s roll away.
As the urban lights neared and the highway flattened, I returned to breathing with ease. Quickly, though, I felt my extremities learning the true extent of the cold. I coasted into town, shivering irrepressibly. I clenched and stretched my hands repeatedly, a futile attempt to spur circulation. Those thrift store smoker’s gloves were no match. My fingers were death-white and numb.
Desperate for warmth, I spotted the familiar sign of Tim Horton’s. I pedalled to the entrance doors, rested Sonja along the windows and rushed inside, racing past the menus and sugary aromas to the washroom.
I rubbed my hands under hot water, splashing my face every few seconds to spread the wealth. Then, I held my face and hands under the automatic air dryer for minutes long, enduring the agonizing transition from numbness to the thousand-needles throbbing as the feeling slowly returned, pacing on-the-spot to distract from the discomfort.
As the pain subsided, I scanned my frustrated, exhausted face in the mirror, spotting my own brand of flaws and imperfections in the unforgiving light. I’d showered and shaved that morning. I shook my head at my own ignorance, humbled, flashing a crooked grin at my reflection before turning to the bathroom door.
While the workers cleaned the tables and floors as the minutes ticked toward closing time, I wrapped my hands around a mug of hot chocolate, sitting and sipping. I loathed the idea of setting up camp in the cold and searched on my phone for a cheap motel in town; still far too reliant on those easy conveniences when the challenging moments arise. After emptying my mug, I walked outside to the cold air to find my four-walled spot to sleep for the night, armed with my plastic guide.
Morning offered a smoother series of moments, aided by my determination to slow down. My unnecessary race to Drumheller had invited an evening of stress and minor chaos. I listened to the obvious lesson: Just, Wait. I resolved to wander for the day, soak in the unique landscapes surrounding Drumheller, and feel peace with making little progress eastward.
I was blindsided by the wondrous badlands surrounding Drumheller. The day before, I had planned to move beyond the town’s sights rather quickly. The Saskatchewan border was no more than two or three days of riding from town. However, the landscape felt foreign, an unexpected kind of fascinating. With no significant climbs to endure, I opted to explore this terrain. Neglect any finish lines for the day.
I rode westward to Horsethief Canyon, an unpredictably scenic view. The clear skies revealed the canyon’s entire form, a rugged and eroded expanse of barren valleys and hills. Mischievous in its numerous hiding spots. I peered over the canyon for an endless hour, picturing old bandits evading adversaries and authorities with their stolen horses. I wondered of my place in this picture. I probably would have steered clear of those pursuits in this bygone era. I’d have been a farmer or rancher, on neither side of the law. Removed and passive and neutral; similar to my life till this trip. But, maybe, I’d have learned and adapted to the different times and circumstances. You never know, I guess.
By the time I snapped back to the present, the sun was already well beyond its midpoint. i hitched my saddle to Sonja and galloped back into reality.
On my way eastward, I happened upon the hoodoos, another natural wonder of the badlands. Admiration and wonder for these incredible forms of natural history occupied another slice of daylight. The sun was already sinking low. Finally, I biked eastbound with purpose. I aimed for some measure of progress into the Prairies before the day’s end. Stay relatively on track for Saskatchewan in a few days’ time.
By early evening, I found myself biking out of the badlands, riding along a quiet highway with few signs of civilization in any direction and even fewer hills. A peaceful feeling prevailed. I passed through the town of Dorothy, followed by a short climb rising dogleg-left to an overwhelming flatness immediately beyond.
I cycled on an extended stretch of flat road in the budding dusk. No vehicles in either direction. A few birds flying above. I begged for a house to rise from the horizon. I hadn’t camped since Canyon Hot Springs, and I was set on pitching my tent on a front lawn for the night.
The air of wide-open calm was inviting. With the first specks of starlight, I saw a house ahead, on the left. Upon arrival, I set Sonja down softly to the driveway and walked up their front steps.
I knocked on the front door with a calm urgency. A woman opened the door, television noise emanating from behind. Facing an unexpected evening stranger, the familiar signs of distrust immediately settled on her face. Another hesitant host. Another instinctual, No. Not even the lawn.
I couldn’t fault her chosen tone. She was living her life in the quiet countryside. An uneventful weeknight suddenly disturbed by a lone male cyclist knocking at her door, invading her peaceful evening. I felt inconvenient, invasive even. Most likely, I was.
But, I persisted. I was done riding. I asked again, emphasizing the innocence and gratitude of a solo traveller only passing through. I pointed to a spot near the road where I would tent for the night. With the hesitance still resonant in her voice, she obliged.
Just be gone in the morning. We’ll be up early for work.
No worries. Thank you so much.
Moments passed. I was fitting the fly to my tent, almost ready to crawl inside. The woman reappeared in my periphery. She had walked down their driveway and called my way.
You know, we’ve converted our shed into a small guest house.
Our son used to live there. He doesn’t anymore.
My husband says the water and electricity are turned off.
But, you are more than welcome to sleep in there if you like.
I was moved. Stunned, frankly. A dose of incredible generosity. I felt pulled to accept. Before I could answer meaningfully, though, instincts kicked in.
Thank you for the offer.
But, no thanks.
I’ve already pitched my tent.
Within, I was dumbfounded by my response. What am I doing? Why didn’t I surrender to the moment? Why did I refuse?
Are you sure?
It still gets pretty cold at night.
You’ll be warmer in there.
Perfect. A second chance to override my initial rejection…
I’m sure. I’ll be fine. Again, thank you.
Why? What’s this fear?
What’s this closed-mindedness?
What’s wrong with me?
Speechless. I’d become the hesitant one. I was vulnerable, too. I felt more shameful than the mountaintop selfie show.
As I burned within, I assured my generous host that I’d be with the wind in the morning. We bid our goodnights, and I collapsed into my tent.
In the early hours of the night, I was rustled awake suddenly and violently. Nearly rolled over with the whole of my tent. Not a train, this time.
The Prairie winds were gusting furious across the night, and I hadn’t bothered to peg down my tent and fly. I stretched my arms and legs to every corner of the tent floor as I cursed another interrupted sleep. My tent was caught in its relentless howl. I accosted my own laziness from hours before, too stubborn to fumble for those pegs. For several minutes, my position did not change. A humanized X struggling to pin down each corner.
I pondered over the meaning and connected this as retribution for refusing my host’s act of kindness hours before. Is this punishment for not accepting her offer?
Echoes of my generous host rattled my tired mind. You are welcome to stay in the guest house. The allure of four walls grew with every howl against the tent. Only, at this point, breaking-and-entering had become a possibility. The guest house would most likely be locked. While stretching every limb to keep down each corner, I felt out of control and desperate. Seriously considering a potential misdemeanour for a partially restored sleep.
I felt a wave of irritation at my own foolishness. I had chosen to experience such inconveniences. Prior to this trip, I’d never been forced to exert a single thought on the site of my next sleep. A life of gifted comforts and routines. I longed for a return to those gifts that night. I remained an entitled, privileged child in some moments. Yearning for an escape into a controlled environment. I wanted an undisturbed sleep. I wanted the guest house.
My mind raced beyond the point of no return. I twisted logic to fit my desperation. It ain’t breaking-and-entering if they’d already invited you in.
I resolved to circle the guest house until I found the door, and I would check to see if it was unlocked. Beyond that, I hadn’t thought anything through.
As I moved from my X position, the tent started to flail wildly with each gust. If I leave the tent, it’ll take flight and disappear.
I couldn’t abandon my tent without first pegging it down. No alternatives. Can’t lose it. Whether I tented or house-guested, those pegs had to be stomped into the ground. I couldn’t sacrifice my tent to the Prairie winds. I was provided a second chance for redemption. Endure the night. Stop chasing comforts. Stomp those pegs and crawl back inside.
Not tonight. My choice for comfort had already set roots.
I grabbed the pegs, and I struggled to maneuver outside. With little care, I stomped all four pegs into the front lawn, securing the tent and fly. I closed the flap. Still standing out of the tent, I was ready to go. Immediately, I realized how ridiculous my actions had become; I’d stomped those pegs only to walk away.
I moved with a guilty conscience, wondering if my hosts were observing my trials through a window. No lights were on inside, or outside for that matter. I carried my flashlight, but I kept it turned off. Couldn’t risk it. Potential misdemeanour, man.
I reached the guest house and walked along the building’s sides until I spotted the door. In the darkness, I reached for the doorknob.
Unlocked. Thankfully. Criminal choice averted.
With a silent turn and push, I opened the door and scurried inside. No electricity buzzing. Only the quiet dark. I removed my shoes and began to feel for the nearest soft piece of furniture. A couch. Two cushions wide. Must be a loveseat. Too small to stretch, but a far better resting place than my thrashing tent. My heartbeat continued to race as I assumed a horizontal position, curled into two-cushions. Though revved-up from sneaking around, I was exhausted. Sleep returned quickly, now uninterrupted.
I awoke with the early morning light glowing through the window above. I resisted the temptation to remain curled-up in that loveseat for a little longer. I had to move, leaving no trace of my refuge in their space. Looking through the window, I could see my tent still standing. Looking around, I noticed a full-sized couch right beside me.
Within a few hurried moments, I returned outside, dismantled my tent, and packed up my life. The morning air had returned to the wide-open calm I’d enjoyed the day before. No signs of the howling winds from the night.
As I rushed Sonja to the road, I glanced back at the house. I couldn’t muster the courage to connect with my hosts before I rolled. I couldn’t bring myself to knock on their door and offer thanks for their support, let alone admit I’d used their guest house after all.
I felt pushed to move on from this experience. A weak moment I was itching to forget. I looked around once more. No physical evidence of my existence here. With no further hesitation, I rolled intently further into the Prairies, determined to race into the horizon and out of sight.