Cycling Across Canada

Wildman, II.

Another stop, another cheap motel. I stayed overnight in Dryden, occupying my room till late-morning, keenly watching the dissipating rains. Restless and raring to go. Gradually, the sky brightened a few shades of grey, the trees no longer swayed. Under a light drizzle, I rolled Sonja to the highway minutes before noon.

Leaving Dryden, the sky offered patches of blue, though still no direct sunlight, for the first time in Ontario. I was intent on seizing the fair-weather day, itching for a greater sense of progress along these roads. Ignace was slightly over one hundred kilometres southeast on the Trans-Canada.

Following a beautifully predictable and routine day of riding, I arrived in the town of Ignace with about two hours of daylight to spare. I was satisfied. Progress.

My packs were scarcely low in calories; I’d forgotten to stock up on groceries during the previous days. I rolled through to the end of town in search of a credit card dinner, opting for a home-style spot at the far edge.

As I sauntered toward the front doors, I noticed a pannier-laden bike was already resting against the diner’s front window. What are the chances? My mind immediately raced back to Wildman.

I walked inside and found my answer dressed in all black. Unbelievable. Nearly one month and two-thousand kilometers east of our half-day ride together away from the eastern edges of the Rocky Mountains, we had reunited in the rural wilderness of northwestern Ontario, amidst the forests and lakes that colour the Canadian Shield. Immediately, I invited Wildman to join for dinner.

Wildman and I caught up on each other’s travels during the rest of the evening. Wildman had blazed across the Prairies; he’d hauled his life for over three hundred kilometers during a single tailwind-aided day. He’d stopped in Red Lake for a few days and worked maintenance on a connection’s property. As soon as he’d earned a modest sum of cash, Wildman returned to the road and pedaled south to rejoin the Trans-Canada near Vermilion Bay.

Wildman had been struggling through the same stormy conditions, only he didn’t have the purchasing plastic or money-in-hand to spring for a four-walled escape like I did. Dude didn’t even own a tent. Wildman slept in a bivy sack, exposed to the elements, under the open skies, rain or starshine. He was a visibly weary, worn-down adventurer.

Following dinner, I offered Wildman to share a motel room in town for the night. In tune with our previous encounter, Wildman skipped the polite are-you-sure pleasantries and accepted straight-away. We coasted across the highway to the motel on the other side, the sun reappearing, wonderful and clear, for the first time since Manitoba. Inside the room, Wildman opted for the floor and insisted I take the bed. I hesitated, compelling him to impatiently insist a second time before accepting.

Showered and bagel-fed, Wildman and I hit the road around nine in the morning. As I plugged a curated shuffle of Bruce’s greatest into my right ear, I noticed Wildman, a pre-ride dart dangling from his lips, conceal both sides with his buds, Apple-white. My partner’s curious blend of visible traits continued to confound. He clearly wasn’t completely disconnected from the world, nor did he deprive himself entirely of comforts. I couldn’t figure him out. There were no close comparisons in the world I’d known. I tabled these thoughts into the dark as the frantic starting bars of Blinded by the Light blared.

We reveled in the warmest day since the Prairies. Blue skies dotted with harmless light-greys. We rode for roughly one hundred and thirty kilometers of a lonely stretch of the Trans-Canada. Mostly in sight of each other, with an occasional burst of momentum pulling one of us out of view for a few bends. Inevitably, we’d pull back together for every break.

Over two-thousand kilometers of pedaling had transpired since our half-day encounter in western Alberta. I was no longer struggling to keep pace with Wildman. Some combination of greater physical strength, further experience, and pedal clips narrowed our performance gap. I felt a quiet inflation of self-worth flowing within, though not quite enough to set our traveling speeds. Often, I still ceded control of pace and interval breaks to my companion.

Around mid-day, we passed a motel, seemingly closed. Wilderness, all around. No cars or other signs of human life. A smooth glass of pond beside the motel complimented the scene. Wildman pulled into the long driveway, and I followed his lead, a few pedals behind.

We filled our water bottles with the hose around the side of the building and walked down to the wooden dock reaching beyond the shore of the pond. Wildman devoured two avocados, a la carte. I munched on my usual snack of trail mix and dried fruit, fishing to include chocolate chips and mangos for every bite. I silently watched Wildman dissect his first avocado with a swiss-army knife. He carried a plastic grocery bag full of the tender fruit. I’d never eaten one before. I was a lifelong apples-and-bananas-and-occasionally-grapes kind of simpleton. Only recently had I taken up dried apricots and mangos. Another bubble I’d yet to wander beyond.

You like those?

Energy, man. Want some?

My first bite. Similar texture to an overripe banana. A dull taste my tongue wasn’t yet ready to crave. Too unfamiliar. I politely declined his second invitation and fished for more chocolate chips and dried mangos. Wildman devoured the rest of his energy, man.

During our next break, about two hours further along, I browsed my phone for a possible spot to pick up dinner. As he smoked, Wildman stared into the wild distance, announcing his resolve to never own a phone. They’re always watching and tracking and recording, he opined between drags, We don’t need a map. We’ll find a store in the next town. Easy. His words served a real-life reminder of my brief phone-less existence in the mountains. Further down the road, I’d strive to heed his opinion with greater intention. For the moment, I brushed off his words of paranoia and focused on my digital map. Within a few thumb taps, I meekly shared with Wildman that Upsala was only thirty kilometers further down the Trans-Canada, convenience store along the right side.

Upsala was a brief and sleepy disruption from the endless trees and browns and greens lining the highway between Dryden and Thunder Bay. Wildman and I stopped at a small convenience store for dinner supplies; a collection of vegetables and soon-to-be-expired sausages on clearance. Wildman had a frying pan, and he offered to cook dinner over a fire. A welcome reprieve from the raw meals I’d devoured during my camping nights.

About an hour beyond Upsala, dusk beginning to cool and darken the evening, Wildman deked left off the Trans-Canada, waving for me to follow him into the woods. Soon, we’d found a clearing out of sight from the highway and set up camp. As I pitched my tent, Wildman unpacked his bivy sack. Wildman rummaged our surroundings for dry brush and wood. I did the same. With the rains now beyond a day into the past, our findings were plentiful. Within minutes, we stood triumphant beside a roaring bonfire.

As our stir-fry dinner cooked in Wildman’s frying pan, I explored the terrain beyond our clearing. I discovered train tracks not more than twenty steps into the brush. The sun was setting peacefully as I strolled along the tracks, begging for a few snaps. Staying true to my newfound determination to live for each moment on this trip, I took my time in between pictures, admiring the sun’s descent into the horizon with my own eyes, avoiding the confining borders of my phone’s camera.

When I returned to the fire, Wildman was just beginning to dig into our dinner. We took turns inhaling spoonfuls as the fire dwindled and the stars lit bright. Not quite as mesmerizing as the Prairie skies. Sharing the scene with a companion, though, marked the moment with greater resonance. I noticed Wildman seemed more content with peering into the flames, yet another cigarette burning. Even if Wildman didn’t quite connect with the skies, I appreciated his presence as I gazed into the night.

We conversed close to the low-simmering flames till silence took its rightful place. I learned Wildman hailed from an Ontario town further southbound along the Trans-Canada. He was on a timeline, too, to visit with his family for an extended break. Wildman wasn’t completely wild, after all. Just a man living mostly apart from society, living in the bush on-and-off and intentionally disconnected for some years already. All the while, he remained drawn to sleeping comfortably and hanging chill with familiar faces. I felt buoyed by the knowing we weren’t as different as I’d initially believed.

Wildman and I bid goodnight with the fire reduced to glowing embers and the cold night showing every breath. I crawled into my tent and tucked into my sleeping bag. Wildman tossed on a fresh set of twigs and branches, nestling into his bivy sack and nudging closer to the rising flames, nearly spooning the fire.

Life along the Trans-Canada, I learned too slowly, does not stray far from civilization, even along its most remote and meandrous lines. Trucks and buses and motorcycles and cars and other motorized rumblers puncture every moment, sooner or later. Usually sooner, I still learned too slowly.

Our peaceful camp in the woods away from the highway was interrupted by several passing trains in the night. Roaring and calling and trembling, about every two hours or so. With every sudden rush out of slumber, I felt the night’s prevailing cold and tucked into my sleeping bag a little tighter. By dawn, I was ready to rise and begin moving quickly to warm up.

Upon emerging out of my tent, Wildman poked his head out of his bivy. Dude looked rough, quietly cursing the trains and cold as he stretched his neck back and forth. I silently conceded his night must have been doses worse than mine. Outwardly, I suggested we start moving immediately and offered to buy a hot drink at the first highwayside stop we happened upon. Wildman obliged. Thankfully, no more than thirty minutes into our frigid morning ride, a gas station and restaurant came into view. We abandoned our lives near the front doors and warmed up inside.

Perked up by our hot beverages, we prepared to return to the road. The sun was higher and already felt warmer. Our exhales no longer announced the cold. Let’s roll. Thunder Bay was only about one hundred and thirty kilometres away.

We prepped our respective rides. I rolled and clipped in as Wildman seemed to do the same. I rode off along the highway, expecting my riding companion to catch up within a few minutes. After biking for awhile, however, I still didn’t see Wildman anywhere in sight when I looked behind.

At first, I didn’t think anything of his absence, assuming he’d catch up soon enough. About an hour further along, I began to question and wonder. Did something happen to him? Is he just riding slow after a rough sleep? Concurrently, though, I stayed fixed on my schedule to Huntsville. Gotta make it to Thunder Bay to remain on track. Caught between connecting with my riding companion and continuing on my own plans, I compromised in half-measures, stopping more frequently and for longer breaks than usual, but never waiting too patiently nor turning back.

I made one final stop at the junction offering two enticing choices: take a shorter route into downtown Thunder Bay, or ride the long and scenic way through Kakabeka Falls. I sat highwayside for about thirty minutes, snacking on trail mix. I felt a tinge of guilt for offering limited patience; I was anxious to keep rolling. With a tepid salute to Wildman and Kakabeka Falls, I turned left toward the city’s centre.

I never saw Wildman on my ride into Thunder Bay. I trusted he was safe. Besides, we were both riding the only road that leads directly to southern Ontario; I figured our paths might connect further along, anyway.

And, so, upon arriving in Thunder Bay around dinnertime, I decided to rest at the city’s fringes till morning, reacquainting myself with the thought of riding on my own again.

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