It was supposed to be a long cold, wet slog across British Columbia, it turned out to be nine extremely enjoyable days. Sure we had some rain, frigid temperatures, heavy Thanksgiving traffic and lots of climbs, but they all fell over the heads and under the wheels of two happy generally smiling cycle tourists. Even with days pushing 80 miles and multiple days of over 3,000 feet in climbing, our good humour remained largely intact. The mood swings we’d both had and learnt to deal with from each other were left at the door as I think we both began to appreciate the value of our dwindling time together. Riding a course once again lubricated by dream weather we positively flew across the province, congratulating ourselves on the evident hardening in our mental and physical fortitude.
Sitting in a comfortable Vancouver house its hard for me to cast my mind back over the last ten days. It is becoming increasingly difficult to separate the days and I’m starting to wonder where I actually go when I’m in the saddle. In preparing for riding solo again, this leg had me thinking increasingly about the psychology behind what we do and how we deal with it. These thoughts would take an unexpected turn on a long and savage climb out of Lillooet, six days into the leg.
Our ride out of Lake Louise and away from the bike carnage of the previous day was unremarkable yet extremely reassuring. Although constant tinkering with my newly bodged machine slowed the opening miles it wasn’t long before we found ourselves a few days in and absorbed once again in the touring routine. Easy days and days off had left me longing for the incredibly comforting familiarity of a series of sixty mile days on the bike. The next few days would offer that a plenty.
The second day in and the blue skies we had become so accustomed to were swallowed up by thick cloud and rain. We were in Glacier National Park, an area renown for high rainfall. It delivered on rainfall which flowed relentlessly from a thick layer of view smothering cloud. For the first time we were left wondering what lay beyond the rocky walls that shot up into the wet oblivion. Huddled pitifully beneath an information sign awning at the base of the 500m climb to Roger’s Pass (1330m altitude), we hurriedly threw together some lunch and appreciatively reflected on the blissful weather that only a few days previous had afforded us unparalleled views along the Icefields Parkway. Shivering, wet and full of the knowledge that we had 10km of climbing ahead of us I figured that this was the start of the end of our luck. Yet our charmed flow did not desert us; half way up the climb the rain stopped and as heavy Thanksgiving traffic cheered us on with honks and upturned thumbs we forged our way through unlit tunnels and topped the pass in good time.
Having managed to time our ride along the main arterial route of Highway 1 to coincide with the four days of the Canadian Thanksgiving holiday, busy traffic became par for the course until we popped out the west side of Kamloops. Aside from the other road users, the ride out of Glacier National Park, through Mt. Revelstoke Park to Kamloops, was a pleasant jaunt through fine weather and subtly evolving landscapes. Our day through Kamloops was especially remarkable when fate dealt us the rare treat of a following wind. Even with a 10km detour to see the world-famous Adams River Salmon run (the biggest for 100 years) we managed to lay down 80 miles, the longest day of the tour so far and a total that just about bought up the 3,00o mile total since Deadhorse. We felt like superheroes, scooting 47 miles before lunch and breaking the back of our journey westwards. After an unforgiving climb into blinding sun along a busy rush hour three lane highway to get up out of the forgettable Kamloops, we were relieved to finally turn off away from the main road down to Vancouver. As darkness began to fall our whoops and hollers were gradually to be replaced with the anxiety of finding a camp spot for the night.
Generally speaking, the further south we’ve travelled the harder it has become to find stealthy places to pitch camp. There is often the option of illegally setting up in a rest area or taking a place in one of the closed out of season provincial campsite, but we still spend most of our nights asleep in some cheeky little spot hidden from the road and possessive landowners. With the increase in farmland and privately owned and subsequently fenced property, accompanied by the darkness of night sweeping forward into the afternoons at an alarming pace, we’ve been forced to evolve our evening routine: Where as previously we’d stop for dinner and then cycle another 5 or 10 miles in search of a place to lay our heads. Now we start looking for a camp spot around 4:30 and can still be looking gone 6. It almost became a joke between us that we always end up finding a decent spot, a fact with which we’d remind ourselves as dusk began to fall and the best looking camping opportunity was left 6 miles behind us. However, we have never failed, becoming adept at recognising when we’ve found a place that won’t be bettered.
As darkness fell on that day through Kamloops we finally found a track that looked as if it was under construction and thus not leading to a private property. After a passing local reassured us that the track only led to a gravel pit we were relieved to pitch up on the hillside overlooking Kamloops Lake. When we awoke to a magnificent red sky that stood up on the hills surrounding the magical Kamloops Lake the anxieties of the previous evening seemed a million miles away. Despite a windy and thus sleepless night we could look out over a glorious morning vista fresh in the knowledge that the day would bring us onto the Sea-to-Sky highway, one of the roads we’ve both been dreaming about for weeks.
The Sea-to-Sky highway runs 254 miles from just North of Cache Creek, over the demanding Lillooet Mountain range, though Whistler and Squamish, skirting Howe Sound and into west Vancouver. With demanding climbs and steep valleys this highway can hold its head high in the company of our other conquered gems; the Dalton, Cassiar and Icefields Parkway. Turning onto the highway tied up our series of detours from the originally planned route south from Prince George. With 750 miles under our belts and a head full of memories, the detour to Jasper and Banff put an additional 400 miles on our total, probably lost us two weeks but served as a valuable reminder of the freedom we must let rule our tours.
Riding the Sea-to-Sky was a joyous experience characterised by the words ‘climb’ and ‘cold’. The moment we turned onto the highway we started climbing. We ascended for about 2.5 hours before pitching up at an out of season camp ground for a night that would end up turning an interesting tale: For the first time on the tour Justin was preparing to stash his food near our tents, something we never do as a precaution against bears. I queried his decision and we ended up taking our things to the other side of the campsite road a few metres away from the highway. It had been a good day , a positivity obviously apparent in our spritely moods, so we retreated to our respective tents full of conversation. Then, having just completed our nightly ride statistic exchange (on account of my bike computer breaking weeks ago), we heard a car pull up across the road. The vehicle sounded as if it had pulled up around the place Justin had left his gear before quickly taking off again to rejoin the highway and roar off into the distance. It sounded fishy so we joked that they’d stolen Justin’s stuff, whereupon he got up to check and set his mind at rest. Unfortunately the joke became real and someone had actually stolen all Justin’s food, his bear barrel, one front pannier, cook set and stove. Bemused and powerless we spent a good while trying to comprehend what had happened before eventually falling into slumber. The next morning we awoke expecting to salvage breakfast from my stores that had spent the night in a bush and as such managed to pass under the radar of the thieves. I thought at the time that Justin had left his things in an exposed position and put my things in a bush as a precaution, I never expected my worries to actually materialize. While I put some water on to boil, Justin strolled down the road to see whether his belongings had been chucked. I figured at the time that he was being a bit optimistic… how wrong I turned out to be. My esteemed companion soon returned with an excited smile spread across his tired face; whoever took his gear had come back and returned it, stacking it neatly by the side of the road!
Having run through every possible explanation for the nights strange thievery episode, we spent the rest of that morning descending beneath light clear cold skies along and through Fraser Canyon to Lillooet. The canyon was breathtaking; a rugged scar in the landscape bordered by bizarre and otherworldly plateaus of farmland. Under a sharp and fresh morning light, the trappings of agriculture (including my first real cowboys) complemented this remarkable landscape with such aesthetic majesty that my progress became seriously stalled by the Kodak pull. This memorable morning would eventually stub itself out in Lillooet where we had a relaxed lunch in preparation for one hell of a climb.
We’d been told about the climb south from Lillooet but as 95% of what we’re told to expect fails to appear we didn’t really take the description seriously. What we were met by was two and a half hours of switchbacks on gradients between 8 and 13%. Although this sounds intimidating, it actually proved a steep and steady door to another part of my brain. At the base of the climb I felt good, plugged myself into some chilled house tunes and set about focusing my attention on the road about 2 metres ahead of my front wheel. What happened after that I’m not really sure as when I lifted my head over two hours later I felt largely oblivious to the punishing climb I’d just pulled my heavily loaded bike up. I remember one truck pulling up beside me as I was negotiating a patch of unpaved 13% road and asking whether I wanted a lift, but the rest of the time is lost to blissful exertion I can only describe as ‘cycling meditation’. Whatever happened it was a revelation that had me buzzing to the point of childish giggles at the top of the pass. Does this make me some kind of twisted masochist or have I just discovered the key to endurance? My reaction was not appreciated by a tired and dejected Justin who’s gears are not set up for such climbs. Justin had been forced to stand on the pedals to get up the gradients, an experience that not only left him dejected but also waiting in the cold at the top of the pass for longer than he should have. Clearly unimpressed with my joy I am grateful that he still found it in himself to take my picture (below) and hide his undoubted resentment.
The next morning followed a similar course as our first 100 metres out of camp found us pumping the pedals up another 13% gradient. Anxious about more climbs, Justin disappeared off ahead (which isn’t unusual) and we agreed to meet at Duffy Lake for lunch. The morning turned out to be a magical one for me, providing more fantastic preparation for the return to solo touring. I was happy to embrace the unrelenting plethora of potentially punishing climbs and felt truly lifted by the autumn colours splattered across the steeply rising mountains that engulfed me. The morning was cold at -2 degrees C, leading to a heightened feeling of ‘oneness’ with my bike. Unable to feel anything in my cold numbed feet it felt as if the cranks were attached directly to the bottom of my legs, the machine was me and I was the machine. Discomfort bought me closer to my bike, encouraging a togetherness that helped me transcend that very sensation. Climbing up to above the snow-line I found myself riding through a world freshly dusted by snow, an icing on the top of magnificent topography and a sweet finish to my recent mental revelations. I earned my pleasure that morning and was aptly rewarded by a grand experience and the small bonus of a massive 15%, 45 mph descent back to more civilized altitudes. With hindsight I can recognize that racing down a steep and heavily meandering slope might not have been the wisest thing to do on a battered bike, but it sure felt good!
After a night camped just outside Pemberton and an early morning puncture for Justin we found ourselves climbing again. This time our efforts dropped us into the world-renown Olympic resort of Whistler. Although still out of season, Whistler was overrun with the young and the trendy. As two unwashed and hairy cycle tourist we made our home in the sunny village square, raiding the darkest depths of our panniers for some well deserved lunch. Lifting our heads from this culinary preoccupation was a real culture shock; we were slowly drowning in a sea of vanity fed by the shameless rivers of perceived individuality and hoped acceptance that oozed painfully from every crack of the mirrored aviator masses that surrounded us. Somewhat pretentiously I felt as if we had earned the right to look down our noses at this oversized gaggle of fashion victims. As each ‘individual’ in this cosmopolitan collective bought their own national styles to the Whistler fashion explosion we were proud to offer our own contribution of tight trousers, fingernail grime and helmet indented hair. From the way some of these lemmings were staring at us I wouldn’t be surprise if we’ve bought a new edgy look to the Whistler wardrobe. It all looked so pointless to me yet the price tags on the jeans and sneakers that gather dust in my wardrobe back in England testify to the fact that this was a world that I once embraced. I am pleased to have finally recognised the indignity of vanity; a curse that has cost me hundreds in haircuts and which I am outwardly trying to combat with an increasingly unruly beard.
Happy to leave Whistler we charged down the road to Brackendale and the home of Kevin, who we’d met at dinner with Carol and Wayne in Prince George. As usual we were met with incredibly generous hospitality from Kevin, his wife and Connor, a mature and level-headed seventeen year old who made me wonder how I managed to be so obnoxious and frustrated at that age. Great people with real passion and experience for the outdoors, their home is impressively stocked with bikes and climbing gear to the extent that there is even a climbing wall in their garage. Looking at the pictures that adorned the walls it was clear that as a climber and mountaineer, Kevin is the real deal; a man with experience that eclipses anything we’ll probably come close to achieving on this trip through the Americas. It is important that we keep running into people like the Haberl family as they knock away the pedestal that others seem intent on placing beneath us.
I love the fact that whenever I start feeling ‘special’ for what I’m doing, someone always comes along and either trumps me or gives perspective as to the triviality of my plight. It is much harder to have people marvel at our commitment to the expedition than it is to have people dismiss it. I think anyone who devotes themselves to challenging expeditions knows that the desire and need that is required is driven by something deep inside that they don’t fully understand. Are we trying to find our peace through endurance, social removal and earned inspiration? Do we actually have more internal questions to answer than people who spend a lifetime sat on the couch or are we simply more aware of these questions and motivated to answer them? Some of the many questions that continually revolve around the mother question… Why? On the surface this is easy to answer: I’m riding my bike because its bloody good fun, rewarding and a darn sight better than having a real job. Yet beneath this facade there are forces at work that I started trying to comprehend up on the Dalton Highway and that I reckon will start addressing again when riding solo after Vancouver.
The last day the two-man wolf pack of Justin and Nathan rode together was October 18, a final 50 miles that took us to our lodgings in east Vancouver. Reaching Vancouver is massive for it has been the target destination of the tour so far. Not only does it represent the end of our Canadian adventure, it is also the first major city we’ll encounter. When we rode into the city under heavy grey skies I was shocked by my reaction; having spent years in London longing for the wilderness, I found myself so overjoyed at being in the city environment, with its smells, energy and attitude that for the second time that week I started shamelessly whooping and shouting in exultation. Maybe the city just feels more like home or maybe perhaps I’m more reliant and affected by other people and a big society than I’ve ever let myself believe or admit. Whatever the reasons I am enjoying being in Vancouver, which is good as I’ll be here for another two weeks awaiting the arrival of parts from Thorn in the UK that will allow me to rebuild my beloved bike.
I am grateful to Justin’s friend Martha for finding us an interesting group of people to stay with in Vancouver. A shared household that takes me back to the lifestyle I knew as a student, I feel lucky to have been introduced to an environment that is as entertaining as it is accommodating. As Justin has now pedaled off south towards Seattle I am solo again and without any disrespect to my good friend (who I know feels the same way), glad of it I am too. The future is exciting.