I emerged from my self-imposed solitary confinement in Craik by late-morning, well aware of my stumble into familiar comforts for a night. I’d slept to excess and lazed in bed with the glow of the latest highlights and news. Flipping channels to avoid every commercial. Creating new playlists and downloaded podcasts for the coming days of riding. A hefty dollop of slow down and chill.
Eighteen inches? That’s all you need. My mind floated to a memory of Brightside before quickly drifting back to the TV. Repetitive updates on the Weather Network on low volume banished any threats of silence.
In preparation for the next stretch of road, I downed two peanut-butterfied bagels and packed my gear. I applied a generous layer of sunscreen and realized it’d been more than a week since I’d last biked under precipitating clouds, in the mountains of Lake Louise.
I returned to my worn-in seat atop Sonja. The sun was already high. Harmless clouds dotted the sky, offering only brief spurts of shade. My sunburns no longer screamed, though still irritating enough to spark the urge to track the movements of every cloud likely to pass through the sun’s gaze.
Moderate traffic rushed along Highway 11 in both directions. Trucks aplenty. Far more eighteen-wheelers than the quieter roads of the previous days. I joined along the shoulder of the road. Music into my right ear, leaving my left to monitor the highway noise. I was ready to cruise. Pedal into Regina for an early dinner.
Beyond Craik, my days took on a punch-in-punch-out tone. I consciously adopted routines. For the rest of the Prairies, this mindset dominated my days.
My riding shifts lasted from ten to eight, give or take an hour on either side. I’d pedal with the aid of music for the first stretch. Au-naturel for the next, until I grew unsettled, restless, or bored by my wandering thoughts. Podcasted after that. Then, another dose of quiet. Repeat. A bud only in the right ear for the busier highways. Both ears for the lesser roads.
I began to set daily distance goals every morning. Challenging-yet-achievable. Typically one-hundred kilometres. Amidst more favourable conditions, I’d ratchet the challenge up to one-hundred-fifty or so. I felt content to near the mark, even if I didn’t quite reach it always.
Following Craik, the Prairie winds seemed to mostly abide for a few days. Nature served a northern crosswind that occasionally flipped heads or tails. No day-long winds in my face. Predictably flat lands, aside from hills and valleys briefly disrupting the plains north and east of Regina; one notable climb around Fort Qu’Appelle revealed a snow-covered ski hill to my right. Every sizeable change in elevation could be identified from kilometres away. These hills became my mountains. Checkpoints to mark my advances.
East of Regina, I avoided the Trans-Canada. Less noise, far fewer instances of fighting the vortex of air pulling me under the passing trucks. I desired the quiet, even if it meant my mind threatened to fill every silence. That’s where the earbuds fulfilled their given purpose.
From Regina, I tracked northeastward along Highway 10 to Melville and turned straight east to cross the Manitoba border on Highway 15. One snapshot of the border sign. Three provinces crossed off. I felt encouraged by the progress, if not inspired.
One early evening, the winds intensified and shifted in Western Manitoba, challenging my days-long routine. An imposing gust drew from the east. I’d already aimed to turn southward at some point either that day or the next, to return to the Trans-Canada. Familiar faces awaited in both Portage la Prairie and Winnipeg. I weighed the options of remaining on a more familiar highway and braving the headwinds or turning south onto a smaller stretch of road. Quickly, I chose to adapt to Mother Nature rather than fight. I turned south onto the next paved right. The winds battered my left side, but my speed increased. A minor dose of relief.
I leaned heavily against the powerful crosswinds into the twilight, my energy depleted upon arrival in Birtle. The road turned east at the edge of town, directly into the fierce Prairie winds. I scoured for a camping spot before the turn, sheltered from the gusts, desperate to avoid another battle against nature that could only be endured, never won.
A park occupied the south side of the road’s curve. A modest sign announced the park’s closure since the previous fall. Perfect, no permission needed. I turned into the park, searching for a barricade to protect my tent. I spotted two small, white buildings. Both were identified as park facilities, separated by about three paces of pavement. Doors locked.
I walked around the small buildings, feeling the wind with each step, searching for the calmest spot. Gusts seemed to whirl with a constant, heavy exhale. The sole manageable step occurred in between the buildings, along a pad of pavement connecting the two. The winds still busted through periodically, but not relentlessly. I’ll take it. I set up for the night, double-stomping my pegs into the ground just beyond the pavement the tent laid upon. No guest houses in sight this time.
Though I had adapted to Mother Nature in pitching my tent, I’d failed to realize the winds hadn’t finished shifting. I was shaken awake in the night. Again. By the middle of the night, the winds were gusting directly through the gap in the washrooms, a powerful rush pummelling violent waves across the tent’s fly. My house was sturdy, though. Not four-walls calm, but structurally-sound. I accepted my fate to sleep restlessly till sunrise.
By dawn, the winds had calmed. Stillness prevailed. The scene invited a moment of gratitude for another morning of blue skies. Over ten straight days of sun, at this point. Unpredictable winds aside, I’d loved the weather along the Prairies.
I packed up and began my day, pedalling through town. Portage la Prairie was my next marker. About a half-day’s ride. A far shorter distance than my preceding goals. The Trans-Canada was my only notable obstacle along the way. I looked forward to seeing a childhood friend. I’d grown wary of my work-like approach to the road; this journey had felt increasingly less like a journey in recent days. I was ready for a break from my daily routine.
At the junction of the Trans-Canada, six kilometres away from Portage, I stopped at a gas station for a snack before the homestretch to my destination. Every scene can become a destination. I scanned my world around. I’d interacted meaningfully with no one since Brightside. I wondered aloud how many words I’d spoken in Manitoba.
I realized I’d disconnected from my earlier days. I’d separated myself from the scene and every piece within it. Just passing through, again and again. A rolling pattern of music, podcasts, and uneasy silence to pass the distance and time. I’d been intentionally avoiding my own thoughts. Tuning out and simply pedalling. Progress for the sake of progress. Nothing else, really.
I’d placed myself into a hollow in-between. Bound by repetition. Refusing to explore and wander. I moved only straight ahead along every road I travelled. Knowingly and unknowingly oblivious to the depths within and the possibilities all around. I’d sentenced myself to a surface-level, low-denominator life somewhere along the way. My choice. It felt too easy, too comfortable. Too familiar and expected.
The Prairies had invited an unprecedented openness, marked by horizons of opportunities to wander within while I progressed eastward. However, as I waded into unfamiliar depths and bounds of delineated thinking, I fell short. I couldn’t bear the mental, emotional, spiritual weight of my own questions and uncertainties. And, so, beyond the mountains, I tethered my mind to the comforts of physical progress, to focus on every pedal closer to the Atlantic Ocean. Every meandrous thought could be harnessed with the linear goal of pushing eastward.
Increasingly, though, each day seemed predictable and controlled. Change was needed. Something else, something more. Just couldn’t feel any certainty of the cure.
Standing in front of the gas station, I kicked at the dusty gravel. Lightly tapped one of my panniers with my fingers. Pressed my fist into the wall Sonja rested upon. I felt stuck and unsure.
Where are you going?
A man was strolling from his truck at the gas fill-up to pay inside. He yelled my way as he approached the store doors. I remained stuck in my own mind, offering only a terse reply.
That’s crazy. Right on.
Be safe. Watch out for our trucks.
Call your mother! Tell her you’re OK!
I lightened slightly and laughed at his final demand. Wrapping my hands around Sonja’s handlebar, I thought of my family. Friends. Home. I looked to the sky. After the stranger disappeared through the door, I began to audibly chastise my darkened state.
What am I doing? What’s wrong with me?
This was my choice. This is all my choice.
This is what I wanted.
I was stirred, again, by a curious stranger. With a simple interaction, the trucker had nudged me out of a self-induced malaise. I texted both my parents a short message. I scrolled through the collection of pictures I’d taken from Victoria to here. I put on my earbuds and tapped to a favourite playlist. All welcome connections, even if they remained distractions.
I rejoined the Trans-Canada. The six-kilometres stretch from the junction of the Trans-Canada and Highway 6 featured no shoulder. I resorted to straddling the gravel and the edge of the road. I could not avoid occupying at least a portion of the right lane. I pedalled in double-time into Portage to minimize my inconveniences to the vehicles travelling over one-hundred kilometres per hour. Eighteen inches? More like zero inches. Every passing car and truck veered into the left lane to accommodate my delicate presence on their well-marked territory. Just like that, my routines of the previous days seemed to slide into the past. Indeed, eighteen inches would become all I’d need.