Cycling Across Canada

Pays Plat.

Life-changing moments often become so only with the benefit of hindsight. Positive or otherwise, first, they happen to us, often without us realizing their significance. Then, we discover and decipher and analyze their meanings with the passing of time. We construct these life-changers and weave their meanings into our inner stories, moulding, distorting, exaggerating, and misremembering their specifics as we make sense of them. No matter the process, we should not diminish these life-changers. After all, they change our lives, even if we didn’t recognize this change at the time.

And, so, there is a significant difference between moments that eventually feel life-changing and those rare moments which simply and irrevocably change our lives in the moment. Before we even begin to discover and decipher and analyze the moment, the moment has somehow discovered us. And, man, the meanings in these rare moments resonate both immediately and powerfully.

In Pays Plat, a small First Nations community in northern Ontario, my life changed in the moment. Over the course of a long evening, and through the next morning, my worldview was shaken to its very roots, in the most loving and profound and wonderful ways.

In Pays Plat, I listened and observed. I learned. Nothing more, really. All I did was bring my wandering self there and open up to the moment that was already happening. And my life changed. In the moment.

Sparks ignited at the Terry Fox Memorial, waiting patiently for another stoke. In Pays Plat, mere hours after my departure from Thunder Bay, a most powerful resonance fanned those sparks into a burning fire that I’ve nourished to this day.

In Pays Plat, I began to feel attuned to the futility of questioning my meanings and purpose on this cycling trip. I began to stop searching so wildly for my place in this world. I began to stop fighting ceaselessly for control of my story and narrative. Instead, I listened and observed. I learned.

My story in Pays Plat felt significant in the moment, seemingly resonating with all of my roots within. In the process, this life-changing moment altered my view of every story before and after its occurrence. No doubt, this moment changed my life.

Without Pays Plat, these cycling stories do not exist. Without Pays Plat, I might have experienced and remembered and shared a set of other stories from this journey completely unrelated. Without Pays Plat, my cycling journey across Canada would have been woven with different memories and narratives. A feat of physical endurance, perhaps. Or, a wanderer’s travelogue of the unseen beauties across this great country.

The truth is, though, I feel the resonance of Pays Plat in the centres of my being. Simply put, my experiences in Pays Plat changed me. Changed my life. Changed my story. Connected the threads of Roots and Progress and all the rest into a humbling search for meaning.

No matter its significance, admittedly, this story remains a story like any other; rooted as a memory in my limited and flawed mind. And, again, this story is not solely mine. This story is merely how I remember this story. All I can do is recall and share my recollections, as best I can.

Following another steep climb and glorious descent, I coasted into a valley nestled between the previous hill and the next. Cool evening air prevailed as the sun dropped lower. Single-digits already. A 175km-day. I recalled my peaceful tour of the Terry Fox Memorial that same morning and felt a surge of pride in my progress.

Pays Plat First Nation. A tiny community of small houses dotted the left side of the Trans-Canada. I rolled past the small sign, toward a convenience store on the right.

Wildman was a few minutes behind, slowed slightly by a building collection of maladies on his bike. Most notably, at times, he’d taken to using his foot to change gears, wrecklessly kicking his rear derailleur to shift. Though I admired his adaptability, I felt more drawn to feel grateful for Sonja’s durability. Only one flat marked her struggles since Victoria; any repairs beyond that would have reduced my travels to an innocent smile and a raised thumb at every passing vehicle. As a result, I was patient with Wildman and his faltering bike. Could have been much worse.

Looking ahead, another arduous climb awaited. I was gassed and ready to stop moving till morning. Hungry and increasingly cold. Within mere seconds of stopping, my attitude shifted from impressively productive to entitled and wanting. I craved a feast and a comfortable sleep. I was not feeling my usual array of dried fruits, crackers, and trail mix, and I was certainly reticent to endure another freezing tent-bound night.

I looked behind. Still no Wildman. I looked around. An expanse of flat ground around the convenience store might have felt inviting on a warmer night. My mind was already hooked on seeking an alternative. While waiting for Wildman to catch up, I leaned Sonja against the convenience store and walked in.

Kindness stood imposingly behind the counter, manning the cash register. I admitted to him that I wasn’t keen to buy anything and, instead, sought a place to sleep inside for the night. Kindness responded that the great expanse of ground around the convenience store usually served as an ideal camping spot for passers-by. Though he clearly didn’t cede to my request, Kindness’ warm and soft voice belied his intimidating appearance. I took to his energy straight-away and breezed past his non-answer.

I asked once more. Is there any place to stay here? Even a motel? I’m willing to pay. I didn’t bother to mask my desire to escape the cold.

Kindness replied that there were no motels in the community. Then, he stood in silence for a beat before continuing.

We do have a community centre.

There is already a group of people staying in there,

But there might be space for you, too.

Let me call the Chief to see if it’s OK for you to sleep there.

Much appreciated. Thanks.

Kindness picked up the phone and dialed the Chief. I stood silent as they spoke, staring through the window. Wildman was coasting toward Sonja. Kindness hung up.

The Chief says you can stay at the community centre,

But only if the people already there are OK with it.

You can walk over and knock on the doors.

The Chief will be there in a bit to make sure there are no issues.

I thanked Kindness profusely for his unnecessary efforts, especially while he was working. He could have said there were no motels in the community and ended our conversation. Instead, he offered a simple yet unusual option.

Don’t worry about it. I was pretty bored. Store’s usually quiet. Good luck, man.

I shook Kindness’ hand and returned outside. Wildman was halfway through a post-ride cigarette. As he smoked, I told him my intentions. Wildman pointed to the great expanse of flat ground, insisting we could just camp for the night.

Well, let’s try the community centre. If it doesn’t work out, we’ll camp.

Sure. Go check. Wave me over if it’s all good.

I walked across the highway and toward the community centre. I examined the aging van that was parked near the doors. A Walk For Unity, Regina to Ottawa was painted on the back.

I knocked nervously on the doors. Unsure of who might be on the other side. Uncertain of how they might react to the person intruding on their space in the dwindling light.

The door flung open. A middle-aged man in a tattered tanktop held the door with one hand, doting an unlit cigarette in the other. Lively noise emanated from inside.

Can I help you?

The man’s face bore a familiar expression from other doors I’d knocked upon on this journey. Instinctually surprised and hesitant. I explained the situation, concluding with a conciliatory tone:

It’d be awesome if we could stay here, too.

But I completely understand if there’s no room.

Two female voices loudly chimed in, unseen:

Who’s there? You’re letting in the cold air! Soup’s almost ready!

The two women appeared behind the man holding the door and greeted my eyes with wide smiles. Suddenly, the man’s face turned wonderfully pleasant and opened the door further:

Hey, come in, buddy. Bring your friend, too. Lots of room.

We’re having soup and bread for dinner.

I told my hosts I just needed to fetch my bike across the road.

Door’s open. See you in a minute.

And, so, following an offering from Kindness and a blessing from The Chief, I wandered unknowingly into an evening with the Lifechangers. Goading Wildman into the scene, too.

The community centre was modest in size, smaller than the one from my childhood town. An open space stretched from the doors to the opposite wall, with a single old sofa sitting near the far end. A few twin-size mattresses were scattered on the floor. Rows of long tables lined the rest of the community centre, with a kitchen and small bathroom at the back of the hall.

The middle-aged man that had greeted me a few minutes earlier stood outside, smoking a cigarette with another man. They looked like brothers. Six others were playing, cooking, sitting, or talking in various spots around the community centre. Small-town tendencies kicked in, and I walked around the hall, introducing myself to every stranger. Wildman followed quietly behind.

An elder woman sat in a chair, offering a warm smile and a soft handshake. A third man introduced himself from a few steps away and explained that she didn’t speak English. A younger boy shied away from our presence, gravitating toward the aromas of dinner in the kitchen. A middle-aged woman sat alone nearby, knitting something in her lap.

The two boisterous woman from earlier were cooking in the kitchen, talking and laughing all the while. They instructed Wildman and I to relax and settle ourselves till dinner was ready. I told them I had some food in my packs if they didn’t have enough for us.

There’s always enough. It’ll just be a few more minutes.

Wildman walked outside to join the brothers for a smoke. I sat on the sofa and opened my pannier to add a layer and change my socks.

Soup’s ready!

The two cooks insisted Wildman and I take our food first. Taking a cue from Wildman’s own brand of tendencies, I forewent the typical polite refusals and thanked them for their generosity.

Within minutes, everyone sat scattered along a couple of the long tables. Jokes and conversation passed in every direction. Soon, one of the men, the third one I saw, turned the focus onto the two bike-riding strangers in their midst.

So, what brings you two to Pays Plat?

We both explained we were cycling across Canada, from Victoria to St. John’s. The group replied with admiration and congratulations.

Don’t congratulate us just yet. Still a ways to go.

The man who had steered the conversation toward our journey responded swiftly:

What you’ve already done deserves congratulations.

Victoria to Pays Plat. Hell of an accomplishment.

You guys must have some stories.

Wildman and I conveyed a few of our memories. I handpicked highlights that were now at the ready upon request. I always made sure to recognize the beauty of every landscape I’d passed. The Rockies. Drumheller. The Prairies. Now, I could add northern Ontario and Lake Superior. I concluded our response with a recollection of the Terry Fox Memorial from the early morning.

Yeah, we passed that, too. A couple days ago.

The younger boy’s comment offered a perfect segue into their reasons for staying at the community centre.

So, what brings all of you here?

And, with an ostensibly innocuous question, my world unexpectedly opened. I listened for a response, unprepared for the answer. The bubble in which I’d presided lifelong was popped, exposing my story to new darks and lights.

The man that had asked for our stories took the lead again, offering an initial response:

We’re walkers. On our way to Ottawa for a protest.

I nodded as a way to show I’d heard him, even though I didn’t understand. Walkers? Protest? I was too timid to ask why they were protesting, focusing instead on where they were walking from. The same man answered.

Some of us are from Saskatchewan. Others from Manitoba.

Been going for a few weeks now. Three generations of us.

Aiming for Ottawa in time for June 21st.

Before I could follow-up with more questions – Why June 21st? Did you know each other before this journey? Who drives the van? – the group began to take turns adding to the initial response, answering my questions before I could voice them, lifting our dinner conversation into a more serious dialogue. As their interplay continued, I mindfully listened to their words and thoughts. Wildman sat quiet, too, moving his eyes to every speaker.

The Lifechangers were walking to protest the living conditions on their reserves. Lack of work, lack of opportunities, undrinkable water, woeful and crowded housing. They were camping or sleeping on reserves along the way. Other groups were making similar journeys to Ottawa, aiming to reach the capital city by June 21st, too. National Aboriginal Day. They were going to protest on Parliament Hill. They were seeking no donations. Only awareness for the struggles of those living on reserves and, hopefully, change.

I’d lost my purpose in life before this walk. No job. No money. No education.

Now, I got something. Showing my boy how to make something happen.

The Chief walked through the community centre doors unannounced. No more than mid-thirties. T-shirt and running shoes and jeans. The conversation stalled briefly as he made the rounds to embrace each of the Lifechangers, introducing himself to the ones he hadn’t yet met. Then, he moved toward me and Wildman, extending his hand.

You must be the crazy bikers. I thought you were on motorcycles.

He laughed and turned to the Lifechangers, making sure they were OK with sharing the community centre for the night. The group affirmed graciously. I thanked the Lifechangers and The Chief for their hospitality. My thank you would be the last words I’d speak for a long while.

With a message of gratitude for their passion and determination to walk to Ottawa, The Chief reignited the dialogue that had flowed before his entrance. Over the course of an hour or so, thoughts and questions and ideas bounced around the group. Anger and frustration and hope and sadness and fear and love all flared.

Stories of residential schools were translated from the elder to the rest, through one of the men. Ruminations on unemployment and alcoholism and welfare cheques pounded my chest. Cultural loss and appropriation. Cree and Ojibway, our languages, are dying. Depression and suicide. Abusive husbands and wives and parents. Intergenerational trauma. Homelessness in Thunder Bay and Winnipeg. Ignorance. Inaction. Discrimination.

All the while, I felt unnoticed. An invisible presence not meant to engage in this conversation. No one sought my thoughts and opinions. No one offered eye-contact in my direction as they spoke, even if I stared transfixed at them. And, so, I continued to listen.

The Chief turned the conversation toward the protest, recognizing the group for representing three generations, though he wondered aloud if change can be achieved. The Chief revealed himself quickly to be a confident leader, blending an obviously advanced intellect with a fiery spirit. He spoke with a powerful honesty, unburdened by the fear of standing alone with his words. His challenging words lit a spark in the room.

An extended and heated debate ensued, weaving through numerous concepts and historical processes which helped to create the conditions in which walking to Ottawa for a protest felt necessary to this crew. Stolen lands. Oppressors. Residential schools, again. Reserves. Handouts. Corrupt leadership. For several minutes, The Chief educated all of us in the financial hindrances and mismanagement on reserves, devoting many breaths to the severely limited funds his community receives from the Federal Government every year. As time passed into night, the debate resulted in no clear answers, only the knowing that the protest felt absolutely necessary to everyone. The Chief concluded the lively exchange with reiterating the importance of bringing three generations together, giving thanks to the whole group for their efforts, no matter the outcome.

I remained silent, aside from bursts of laughter during the lighter moments. I sat quiet and attentive, absorbing the emotions and historical contexts and socioeconomic lessons and political realities shared around me. Only much later on would I appreciate just how precarious my position was during that evening. My willingness to listen, to avoid every urge to feel a part of the conversation, was likely the sole choice that ensured the whole of the conversation could be spoken in my presence. Wildman, too. We were visitors. Guests.

Yawns and tired eyes gradually spread throughout the group. With the inevitable lull finally overtaking the room, much of the group moved outside for the night’s final smoke. Wildman accompanied them with a dart in hand, too. I helped clean up dinner, still processing every valuable thread of the conversation I’d just heard.

Hey, everybody! Come outside!

Full moon’s rising!

A few of us were finishing our clean-up when one of the smokers yelled through the doors. The others dropped their responsibilities immediately. Following their lead, I did the same, though I didn’t understand the significance. Full moon rising? I’d been a lifelong sunrise and sunset chaser, gifted by the open views of southwestern Ontario and the Great Lakes. I admired starry skies whenever a city’s light pollution was sufficiently out of sight. But, a moonrise? Never thought to catch a moonrise, let alone the full kind. Still, I wandered with the crowd. Unlike Lake Louise and Banff, however, I followed the crowd into a scene of no signs; only the allure of a great unfamiliarity.

I was the last one to make it outside. The rest of the group was looking to the southwest, pointing to the circle of bright white rising slowly out of the trees. Chatter and laughter and admiration flowed around. I just kind of stood, quietly baffled by a beauty I’d never bothered to notice. Always knew the moon was up there. Always thought nothing more of it.

Woefully ignorant, indeed.

With the moon higher in the sky, its shine casting away many of the stars, the Lifechangers moved to ready themselves for sleep in the community centre, and The Chief bid goodnight, walking alone into the dark of the night.

The rest of us settled inside. Some of the Lifechangers moved to some of the mattresses scattered on the cement floor. Knowing Wildman didn’t have a sleeping pad, I offered him the sofa. As per usual, he obliged without further conversation.

As I unpacked my sleeping pad and bag, placing them on the floor beside the sofa, Generosity approached and interrupted:

You don’t have to sleep like that. Take a mattress.

Taken aback, I responded with an instinctual politeness:

Oh, I’m fine. Thanks, though.

Generosity leaned lower and closer, with a politely insistent tone:

I’m not asking. Take the mattress.

Looks like there’s only one left. Where are you sleeping?

I’ll be fine. I’m off for one last smoke. Sleep well. See you in the morning.

Generosity walked outside and shut the doors. I counted the bodies still inside, to make sure I wasn’t taking someone else’s mattress. Six. Plus Wildman. And, one outside. Alrite. I left my sleeping pad, picked up my sleeping bag, and bundled up a pair of sweatpants for a pillow. Lying down on the mattress, I fell quickly into a deep slumber.

In the morning, I’d overhear one of the other Lifechangers comment on Generosity’s whereabouts the previous night. He slept in the back of the van, poor soul. Must have been cold. I was floored. He was walking thousands of kilometres to protest the living conditions of him, his family, his community, his people. I was biking across Canada because I wanted to. As I processed the information I’d just heard, Generosity walked inside, exhausted and smiling.

Wildman and I packed swiftly in the morning, to make an early start on another long day along one of the Trans-Canada’s most remote stretches in all of Ontario. Before we left, the Lifechangers gathered around us and our bikes to wish us well.

Two of the women approached closer, endowing us small moosehide pouches around our necks.

This will help the spirits watch over you.

Sacred medicines are packed inside. Cedar, sweetgrass, and sage.

Keep them with you on these roads.

Floored, again. Admittedly embarrassed, too. We had nothing for them, and we had just spent a night eating their dinner, listening to their conversations, and sleeping in their space. Just passing through, again and again. All I could offer were a heartfelt thanks and a round of hugs.

Then, with a push and pedal, I was off. With Wildman already riding a few seconds ahead, I was leaving a life-changing experience, intent on processing all that transpired since I rolled into the tiny First Nations community. A moment opened by my unwillingness to sleep outside.

Life is easy. Life is too easy. This is why I’m here.

This choice to cycle across Canada felt right because of Privilege. Because of choices afforded to my world, my life, and my story.

Life is easy. Life is too easy. I sought challenge because I felt a dearth of purpose and meaning along my familiar and easy paths.

Riding out of Pays Plat, finally, I felt the shine of this light, I felt the resonance of these roots. Now, I could begin to explore the flows within these uncharted waters.

This feels right.

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