Western Manitoba (June 28 – July 2)

•July 10, 2012 • 4 Comments

I can’t believe how strong those winds were, the day I tried to run from Winnipeg to Portage la Prairie. To be fair, it’s the only time I ever had anything to complain about regarding the weather in Manitoba, but it was quite a sight to see. There were a lot of red-winged blackbirds by the side of the highway, attempting to fly parallel to me as I went west, but for all their flapping they’d remain completely stationary as I inched forward. The noise of the wind whistling by my ears was probably as much a psychological stressor as the fact that I was barely moving forward. Wind is something I’ve always had trouble with, to be honest – not just in running, where it seriously affects my morale, but strong wind can put me in a bad mood even just walking around a city. So it was an interesting day, really facing the worst kind of wind head-on and having to deal with it. It’s a shame I didn’t make it to Portage, because Henri & Megan’s friend Jackie was willing to put me up for the night, but roadside camping ended up being fine.

A fruity oasis on the road from Winnipeg to Portage.

But because I had stopped 30 km short of Portage that night, my next day of running – which should have been an easy 36 km to MacGregor – ended up being a fairly long day. Fortunately, the weather was fine, so I got there with time to spare. I filled up on food at a little cafe-type thing by the golf course and made friends with the only employee, Michaela, who was super friendly. I was eating outside on a terrace kind of thing, and I could hear her singing to herself inside – so cute. She told me that MacGregor’s annual fair/rodeo was happening the next day, and I thought: “Finally some interesting local event is coinciding with my arrival in a town,” and decided I’d stick around for at least a couple hours the next morning. It made sense with the friendly vibes I was getting from this town, that they would have a non-commercial town campground, in this case run by the Lions Club, and only asking for $8. As I was setting up my camp and the sun was going down, by chance I met a guy named David going for a walk with family & friends, and we talked for a while. This is a pretty small town, so while I didn’t know it at the time, I’d see more of them!

The next morning, I checked out the annual Lions Club pancake breakfast which was happening outside in the already-sweltering heat and sun. Everyone was so friendly and welcoming that it really felt like a different planet from Ontario! I took in the pretty foreign (to me) spectacle of the town rodeo, which was a pretty quiet, all-local affair… so interesting to see little kids in the bleachers alongside old men, watching so intently, understanding what was going on in a way I definitely couldn’t. I watched for a while, but it was awfully hot and I was starting to feel like a tourist, so I got out of there and headed over to the library to catch up on some internet stuff. On my way, I ran into David and his friend John again, and we talked for a while. Then I ran into David at the library yet again, where he was checking out “The Man who Mistook his Wife for a Hat,” and the librarian exhibited some sort of charming “Well, I never!” reaction to such an unlikely title. He asked me if I’d like to come over and have lunch with his family, and I was happy to accept.

So when I pictured lunch with the family, I had no idea what a big group we would be! At first I thought perhaps all nine kids were David’s and Tammy’s, but soon realized about half (give or take, obviously) were John’s, since their family was visiting. What an incredibly kind and easygoing bunch they all were, and so much young energy in the room from all the kids – all just totally great people. Coming out of Ontario, where a meal might be a can of condensed milk eaten alone at a picnic table, it was great to have a meal with a real family (well, two of them), all around the table. We got to talking about singing, and it turned out that was a pretty normal family activity, so after they all pulled out a round, I decided to teach one of my own. I was impressed at how quickly they managed to pick it up and, eventually, manage doing it in four parts. Harmony singing isn’t something that most groups of people sitting around a table eating could manage to do if their lives depended on it! Anyway, after weeks of singing to myself on the road or at my campsite, it was nice to sing with and for others, and I was glad to be able to share something with people who were giving me so much. When I left, it was already getting rather late for me to start my run (2:30 pm or so), but I was leaving with an awesome bag full of food and some new friends.

Group photo with the Kruse & Wagner clans in MacGregor, MB. Guy in the red t-shirt is a runner and wanted to go with me for a ways, but I think his parents weren’t wild about him running on the highway!

So I gradually prepared to run on to Carberry and through the famous “Carberry hills” – mild, rolling hills with some nice scenery. In a way, I was glad to be leaving late, because I’d miss the hottest part of the day, but just as I was about to go, I met yet another new friend. “Excuse me! Um… what are you doing?” she said as I was definitively starting my walk to the highway, about to stop en-route to buy some gatorade. As I explained a bit of what it’s all about, Jillian told me she works for Shaklee Sports Nutrition and told me about what they do. Well, short story, they’ve got a team of 75 full-time scientific researchers perfecting hydration, recovery, energy solutions, etc. Apparently the osmolality (try saying that) of their electrolyte drink (“Performance”) is more conducive to keeping your blood-glucose levels up than anything else on the market, and was used by the cyclist in the cockpit of the MIT Daedalus on its record-setting flight. So Jillian just gave me a big tub of this, and a big tub of their recovery drink (“Physique”). I promised to keep in touch and tell her about my experience with both products. As I went on my way, I pointed out what a coincidence our meeting was, since I was literally on my way to buy gatorade when she said hello. “Maybe it wasn’t coincidence?” she said.

Skipping ahead a week, Jillian was on her way back from some sort of seminar/conference on sports nutrition in Calgary, and was going to pass me on the highway as I headed for Regina. She had asked me if I had a blender/shaker bottle, which makes it a lot easier to mix up a batch of the recovery stuff, and I said no, so she was actually planning to drop one off for me as we crossed paths! Wild. When she passed me about 15 km east of Regina, she honked and waved from across the divided highway before turning around (I couldn’t see her well, but I figured it must be her – sadly, the people who hoot and holler at me in greeting are almost never young ladies). She was excited about all the research she’d just been learning about in Calgary, and ended up giving me a roadside lesson in sports nutrition before passing on a shaker cup. Seriously, how lucky am I to meet people like this?

Jillian and me by the side of the Trans-Canada Highway, discussing the finer points of ideal carb-to-protein ratios for muscle recovery, the utopian demands of Dr. Fuhrman’s dietary prescriptions, etc.

But, back to my MacGregor-Carberry run. I got going very late (5 pm), but felt so strong and full of energy that I just ran all the way until I hit a picnic area that was a perfect stop for the night (though not actually all the way to Carberry). When I got up in the morning, it was Canada Day, and I was heading for Brandon through Canada’s heartland.

When I passed Carberry, I decided to not even go into town, because it was 4-5 km off the main road. I was very fortunate that the innkeepers at the only motel/restaurant along the highway were willing to let me fill my bottles there, because they weren’t even open for the holiday and it was, again, very hot and sunny out. I only made it to sprawling Brandon quite late in the afternoon, and it wasn’t very lively. I had thought, ok, the second-largest city in Manitoba – there’s got to be something interesting going on on Canada Day, and plenty of people outside having fun. I hung out in a public park for a while, but the families and groups of people there seemed very insular, very much doing their own thing rather than commingling. I think this atmosphere might have been due to the high immigrant population, actually, because I heard quite a few different languages (including a lot of Chinese) being spoken, which could explain a certain feeling of social islands rather than a more outgoing community. I began to feel a bit lonely as I walked through the deserted downtown streets around sunset. I guess that, running across Canada, I had been genuinely eager to celebrate the national holiday – a holiday that’s pretty much only mentioned as an afterthought in Montreal, but I thought would be this spectacular extravaganza out in the prairies. Of course, it probably was like that in a small town like MacGregor! My (ridiculous) hope was probably that somebody would ask me what I was doing, and when I said “running across Canada,” they’d be like, “Oh, hey! We’re celebrating that country today! Come eat BBQ and drink beer with us!” Not happening, sadly – at least not in Brandon.

As the sun started to go down, I walked out of town on the 1a and started looking for a place I might pitch my tent. The pickings were awfully slim! Just as it began to get truly dark, I passed a house near the road where I saw a fire going in the yard and some kids running around. I decided to take a leaf out of Alex the Polish cyclist’s book, to just be open and sociable and friendly, and ask politely if it might be ok to camp on their lawn. He had done this a number of times across the prairies, but I had always found some other solution when I was in a tight spot. It felt awkward at first (seriously, how do you introduce yourself?), but it was the right move, and I’m so glad I did. After all, a big part of this trip for me is just getting out of my shell… sometimes I have a default distrust or reticence towards other people, yet almost every time circumstances force me to get out there and talk with strangers, good things happen.

That was certainly the case when I met these folks, Alannah and Jeff and their friends and family. They let me camp on their lawn, and I joined them in roasting hot dogs over the fire, answering questions and telling my stories. The loneliness I’d felt earlier that day melted away as we watched the big fireworks in downtown Brandon (from about 10 km away), and then the little ones that Andy set off in their own yard. When those were finished, Alannah got out a Chinese lantern, and we lit it up and watched it slowly rise and float away southwest, all speculating where it would go, and imagining the reactions of other people who saw it float by. I felt excitement, but also a kind of sadness, as if I was watching this singular moment occur, rise up and float away, receding into memory where it could no longer be seen and experienced.

The next morning, they treated me to a fabulous breakfast of eggs and bacon, and sent me on my way with food and water. To my delight, Andy decided to run with me for as long as he could manage when I left. He may have only jogged with me for a couple of minutes, but you know what? Nobody else has done that since Montreal!

Myself with Alannah & Jeff’s kids, just prior to setting out for Virden.

Andy pushing his limits on the TCH like a true champ.

It was going to be another one of those days where all sorts of people would help me along the way to Virden. I had a nice bundle of food with me at the start, but only an hour or so later, once I’d gotten back on the #1 proper, a van pulled over and out stepped Walter Kruse, the father of David from MacGregor, looking like Santa Clause with his big beard as he called out, “You must be Mr. Edmund Milly!” and gave me cinnamon buns and more water. He and his wife were taking a daytrip to visit MacGregor, and they actually passed me and stopped to give me food (a huge piece of watermelon) and water again on their way back that evening, just before I hit Virden! At midday, I stopped for some food at an old-fashioned fast food stop in Oak Lake, and befriended a quartet of bikers (not cyclists) after I butted in wanting to know where it was they were talking about that had high levels of arsenic in the town water (Virden, unfortunately). A guy named Landon volunteered to show me a good spot to camp in Virden if I gave him a call when I got into town – I did, and he showed up with his pickup truck and gave me the full tour of town, before setting me up inconspicuously in Victoria Park (where I almost certainly wasn’t allowed to camp, but it was fine) and leaving me with a couple home-grilled steaks!

I went to sleep feeling that Manitoba had been very kind to me that day, and at a time when for some reason I needed it. That sense of isolation I’d felt in Brandon had stuck just a little bit, or maybe it was that I’d hardly talked with C at all in the past few weeks, and she’d stopped returning calls/texts. That wasn’t too out of the ordinary, but I’d just had this queasy feeling in my stomach that maybe something was wrong, and I was feeling a little blue. I may have a solitary nature, I guess, but after she’d come to see me in Ottawa and introduced me to the people in her life I had really felt a sense of closeness and was missing her.

Manitoba gave me all it had to give, in ten days of perfect sunshine. I had every reason to just be living in the present moment, but I started to experience a certain lapse in my attitude. The next day I’d cross into Saskatchewan, and despite the prairies just going on and on, everything would change.

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Into Winnipeg, “Heart of the World” (June 23 – 28)

•July 9, 2012 • 5 Comments

I might have been more excited to cross over from Ontario into Manitoba than anyone has ever been before! Think about it. From May 3 to June 23, I’d been crossing this massive province by its less populated northern route. The awesome landscapes of rock and lake had begun to lose their charm as I battled thunderstorms, tried to stake my tent into rocky soil, and got eaten by huge mosquitoes and tiny blackflies, no matter how much DEET I smeared into my skin. I’d have a shower only once every few days, and accumulated strata of DEET, sweat, blood, sunscreen, and more sweat would all come off at once. Sometimes it was hot, but almost never hot and sunny enough to go shirtless or for my shirt to actually dry. There was never any real food, anywhere, but rather a succession of surprisingly expensive roadside chip trucks and local fast food diners, plus convenience stores where I’d stock up on Snickers bars, or – if I was lucky – trail mix. All of which had to be stowed away carefully to keep the bears, lynx, wolves, coyotes, cougars, moose, etc. away from my campsite. I’m not complaining here, because running across Ontario was truly one of the most amazing experiences of my life (hopefully an impression I’ve conveyed through this blog), but rather giving some context to why I was so excited to enter a province and a landscape which most of my friends have never had any reason to find thrilling.

Amazingly, my high expectations for the sudden changes in climate, geography, and social differences across this social border were all fulfilled. When I took the photo below, just as I crossed the border into Manitoba, there was still some partial cloud cover, but it literally disappeared within 20 minutes… until ten days later, when I crossed the border into Saskatchewan. Obviously this is a bit of an amazing coincidence, because unlike between ON and MB, there is not a natural geographic explanation for the border between MB and SK (i.e. the cessation of the shield, lakes and hills crossing into MB), but it’s still pretty cool.

To me, this border crossing was a huge milestone in the run.

At the Manitoba welcome center, I basked in the sun and had a picnic lunch with a quartet of Franco-Ontarien retirees who were on a roadtrip to Vancouver. One old guy just sat there munching on raw green onions, which I thought was pretty impressive. When I set out for Falcon Lake, it was hot and sunny on a flat highway that had just become divided (and yet was still legal to run on!) Falcon Lake turned out to be a beautiful resort area where I took my time reading in the sun, after dining on sweet potato fries topped with chili, and later ice cream… The next day I ran to Hadashville, and I was there before I knew it – with the flatness of the road, the 50k run seemed to fly by. However, it wasn’t much of a town. I quickly located the only place in town and ordered a Lvivske Ukrainian Lager, having just eaten a bit before. Megan and Henri had asked me “when’s the poutine going to start?” as they headed east, and when I said it hadn’t ever stopped, they put it together that perhaps Kenora was the dividing line between the land of poutine and the land of pierogies, which turned out to be true. This restaurant I was in in Hadashville was pretty impressively Ukrainian, and I sat there eating my obligatory order of fries (licensing issues) with my Lvivske. As I was about to leave, two young guys who’d just come in and ordered a couple Lvivskes and two small caesar salads (to-go!) asked me what I was doing in Hadashville. These guys, Matt and Ed, were firefighters who would get flown in to forest fires all over Manitoba from their base just down the road, and they invited me to spend the night on the base. It being so close to the solstice, there were so many hours of daylight left after my run that I had no clue what else I was going to do, so I was awfully glad I’d run into these friendly dudes. We all headed back to the base, myself racing them (in their car) with the Chariot to a spot about half a mile down the road. (They won, but I put up a good fight.) Matt’s from Burlington, and Ed from London (both Ontario), and they come out here to do this work every summer. Man, that night I learned more than I ever knew before about forest fires and how they’re fought: Ed went to pick up some readouts that showed where all the lightning strikes in the past 24 hours happened, just so he could know what they might be in for tomorrow, and showed me and explained everything. These guys really cared about their work, and loved it in a way, despite sometimes ridiculously taxing circumstances (i.e. their entire camp and all their possessions, out on a job, being burnt up by the fire they were fighting, back-to-back 17-hour days with a couple hours’ nap in-between). They showed me their little garage gym and I got in a good strength workout, alternating between pullups, some dumbbell stuff, and even the bag, just because it was there.

Helipad outside the fire base I shared with Matt and Ed in Hadashville, MB.

Typical Canadian garage, bench press & decomposing stuffed moose.

That night, Ed & Matt built a bonfire in the back yard, and we all hung out on the back patio they’d built themselves last summer. They got out their cameras/phones and started showing me pictures of fires they’d fought, fires they’d deliberately started and played with in the comfort of their backyard, etc. These guys interacted with and talked about fire like it was what made up the world, and I suppose in some ways it is. It was just their element. We all talked a lot that night and had a good time. Ed and I got in a conversation about the ways people get around and where the future of transportation was headed. He believed something big is going to happen soon, something that could change the ways we live our lives and the sorts of ecological decisions we all tacitly make right now. It’s a sentiment I’ve run into a few times lately, both before and after that night. He said that when whatever-it-is went down, it would be the farmers who managed best without gas / fossil fuels, because they know how to produce everything they need and be self-sufficient on their farms. It’s hard to disagree with that, and yet I reflected on how, sometimes on my trip, it’s seemed like it’s farmers who have the most cavalier attitude towards driving places in their big trucks. Ed’s probably right nonetheless –  farmers need trucks for their work, after all, and maybe they only use them so much now because our society is arranged in such a way that that luxury is affordable and has become something that we feel we need to live. He told another story about a coworker who wanted to rush back into their burning camp to save his iPhone from the flames, and was freaking out. “These people, they can look just like you and me, but if you take away their iPhone or their internet or whatever, they’ll just lose their sanity completely!” It’s interesting, right? This coworker, a guy who fights forest fires, is in theory a lot more adapted to living in the wilderness and without technology than a citydweller like me, and yet I think I would be able to let that go, as would many of my urban friends. It’s some matter of perspective on technology and how manic our relationship to it sometimes becomes… looks can be deceiving: when country folk become too attached to their big trucks and iPhones, they get just as bad as the urbanites. 

Whatever the case, Matt and Ed were on call the next morning and had to get ready for duty, so I moved on to Ste. Anne, where I was to meet up with Rebecca’s parents, whom I’d never met before. Doug picked me up just as I was about to reach Ste. Anne, and I said that was the exact spot we’d have to come back to the morning after next (Doug and Leona live somewhat off the highway, so they volunteered to pick me up and drop me back off for my visiting them and taking a rest day in the Steinbach area). He brought a cold wet washcloth that felt like heaven, and took me to Leona’s house, where I got to take a shower before we all sat down to a beautiful meal of which I’m really sorry not to have a photo. Huge steaks, tons of lovely roasted vegetables, and the local Fort Garry Dark Ale. It’s always so fun meeting the parents of a good friend from Montreal in their native environment, too. Leona reminded me rather strongly of Rebecca, and, well, I hope this doesn’t raise too many eyebrows in everybody’s respective households, but I couldn’t help thinking of Dave (Rebecca’s boyfriend and another good friend of mine) when talking with Doug. Both were extremely proud parents, and perhaps this united feeling of parental achievement is one of the things that allows them – a pretty recently separated couple – to enjoy such a cordial relationship with one another.

Incidentally, Doug is also a firefighter, but he’s worked with structure fires in downtown Winnipeg for many years. We all got into a conversation that was strangely similar to the one I’d had with Matt and Ed the night before: I don’t think it was me that steered the conversation back into sustainable living, but I’m always willing to go there, so that’s where we went. Doug remarked that in his firefighting experiences he’s encountered a lot of people who simply “don’t know what to do” in the event of very minor emergencies, like extremely hot or cold weather and so forth. I think he was saying that sometime soon, it could become pretty important, this division between everyday people who simply do or do not “know what to do” in the event of shit hitting the fan. I felt glad for the wilderness/camping/survival experiences I had throughout Ontario, although I don’t know how far they go to counteract a lifetime of being a city kid with abstruse intellectual interests.

At some point during dinner, Leona mentioned that she really thought I should name the Chariot. Fair enough – we have had a pretty close bond through all the crazy experiences we’ve shared in the past two months. Sometimes I feel like the thing is really stuck to me, and if I’m ever without it there’s a little alarm that continuously goes off in my head. I’m not sure how I feel about the practice of naming vehicles (is the Chariot even a vehicle??) as if they were living things, but in this case I did give in, and after a few days’ careful consideration, I’ll say that I’ve named “the Chariot” – that is, my Chariot Cougar 2 jogging stroller – Grady. Just Grady is fine, but, for the record, it is short for “Gradus ad Parnassum.”

I stayed on the farm with Doug that night, and decided to take my rest day in Steinbach instead of Winnipeg – after all, what really matters is how and with whom you’re spending the time, not where. To be honest, my rest days are mostly spent getting in touch with people, writing, reading and relaxing, so a big city doesn’t even have much to offer me. Doug was a great host, and despite my blogging for so much of the day off we got quite a bit of time to hang out. All the same, I’m sorry to have had such a short time to spend with both him and Leona.

Doug dropping me off on the TCH, well-rested and ready to run to Winnipeg.

I was pretty excited to see Winnipeg. Why? I’m sure it has a lot to do with the films of Guy Maddin, especially two of my favorites, “The Saddest Music in the World” and “My Winnipeg.” Does seeing the actual city in real life add much to the richly bizarre, monochromatic, vaguely mid-century and totally unrealistic Winnipeg of Maddin’s imagination? Probably not: and, according to Leona Woodmass, Maddin’s Winnipeg isn’t even anything like the real thing. “We aren’t weird! We’re pretty normal!” she said. Fair enough, I said, I’m sure that if I was actually from Winnipeg I’d get sick of people talking about Guy Maddin, too, since the city promotes him so heavily as a “local artistic figure.” But still, I think there’s something to the metaphor Maddin uses at the beginning of “My Winnipeg” when he’s talking about the city originating from the forks of the Red and the Assiniboine, a natural crossroads or meeting place: he claims that the native peoples believed that, below the confluence of the two rivers, there was a “forks beneath the forks,” a confluence of energy beneath the surface which gave rise to what’s visible. All of Maddin’s work is aimed at perceiving the “forks beneath the forks,” metaphorically speaking. He isn’t saying that Winnipeggers are any “weirder” than anyone else, in my opinion, but rather trying to penetrate below the surface of places and people who externally epitomize normality, similar to what Lynch does in “Blue Velvet.”

Passing the longitudinal centre of Canada on my way into Guy Maddin’s hometown, “The Heart of the World.”

Backpackers’ Guest House in Winnipeg, a good place to spend the night if you’re short of cash and friends.

The next morning I ran some errands, and succeeded in finding dry bags in which to keep my gear (no more soggy gear, even in the here very unlikely event of a thunderstorm). It was idiotic, yet inevitable, that I didn’t manage to get out of the city until around 1 pm. My ever-demanding itinerary was asking me to go 86 km that day, all the way to Portage la Prairie – absolutely the longest (planned!) run of my trip. I was psychologically prepared for it, and I think I would have made it, but wouldn’t you know it? Of all the days to get a 100 km/h headwind, it had to be that one. The wind slowly started picking up in the late morning, until by the time I was running to Portage, it was blowing me directly back into Winnipeg. I ran into the wind for a couple hours, until I realized I wasn’t moving much faster than I would be if I simply walked, spending far less energy. When you run, there is always a point when both feet are in the air, and at that time it’s possible for the wind to blow your whole body back, much more than when you’re walking! Grady wasn’t helping matters, with all that wide chassis filling up with wind and pushing me back even more strongly. Frankly, I’m pretty proud to have made it some 50 km that day, considering the late start and truly extreme headwind. It’s a pity that I had to walk the majority of it, but to move forward is the important thing. Because of that wind, I wasn’t able to make it to the house of Jackie, a friend of the cycling couple Megan and Henri who was willing to put me up. Instead, I pitched my tent in a strip of grass between a row of trees and a field of crops, right next to the highway. 

Grady, sporting a bright orange flag for increased visibility (thanks Doug), and my new dry bags, which took the place of garbage bags. If I still look like a hobo, at least I look like a well-equipped one.

Wind aside, I was really loving this endless, beautiful, sunny weather, and all the nice flat road with a wide paved shoulder. For the next few days, I was headed right through some of the kindest and most welcoming strip of prairie yet.

Running through storms, and saying goodbye to Canadian Shield country (June 14-22)

•July 8, 2012 • 1 Comment

I remember that when I left Jeff’s place late in the morning on the 14th, hoping to complete a long, hard run and make up some lost time, I casually remarked, “Well, all I want is to not get rained on today.” I’m not sure why I even happened to say it out loud, since I was mostly talking to myself. I was in for quite a day.

As I was hoping to go long that day (60-70 km), I started out with a long walking portion and told myself not to feel guilty and just walk as long as I felt like it. Thus I ended up walking just about my first 22 km, almost all the way to Upsala.

A note on walking: walking has an interesting role in my daily life on the road, because fundamentally, I feel that the act of running encapsulates and justifies my entire mission; I feel a little bit ashamed when I spend too much time walking, even though its role is important both physically and mentally. Of course it functions as a warmup. It also saves energy at the beginning of a long-distance day, saves water if I’m dangerously close to running out, and may be a wiser act in terms of energy conservation if there are extreme winds or hilly terrain (walk up, run down). Walking is doubly meditative because it uses less focus and mental energy than running. It’s also the time of the day where I do most of my thinking: in fact, you might even say that I think about a lot of different things in a somewhat intelligent and free-flowing fashion while I’m walking, and then when I’m running I latch onto just a few of those thoughts and repeat or develop them, or feed off their energy. This isn’t even necessarily what I want to be going on in my head, because I prefer to be focused solely on the physical sensations of the present moment, but it happens nonetheless.

Coming in to Upsala, I had covered 28 km very slowly, and I knew it was time to figure out exactly what was going to happen today and make my move. I had seen a sign for an inn at English River that let me know it was 42 km (exactly a marathon) beyond Upsala, and I resolved to make it there no matter what. If I pushed hard, ran a lot, and made up this distance today, and if the inn/motel situation was open and affordable, I’d reward myself with a good night’s rest. In Upsala, I stopped at the general store, had a couple snacks, and drank a can of Whoopass (they should really be sponsoring me). I truly did feel ready to whoop some ass. That’s about the time the sky started clouding over.

Church by the CPR tracks as I came into Upsala.

Upsala sculpture depicting a mosquito dining on man-flesh. Honestly, this was a little disturbing in real life.

Four kilometers down the road from Upsala, the rain started, and it quickly turned into a downpour. I secured everything in the chariot and got it as “rain-ready” as it can be, but in a matter of 20 or 30 minutes, everything was soaked. In fact, pretty soon everything was soaked so badly that I knew camping just wouldn’t be an option tonight, and that inn was my only hope: in Northwest Ontario, you’re pretty lucky if the businesses you see on road signs are actually still in existence and open, so I was staking a lot on that. Furthermore, I knew that if I ever stopped running to take a walk break in this downpour, it was over… frankly, I’m not even sure what that means, but it would have been a profoundly bad situation: if you stop running when you’re wet and cold, but the atmospheric conditions are such that you can’t get dry and warm again, and there aren’t any rest stops along the way, then, well, I suppose you could get hypothermia or at least a severe chill. I knew there was nothing on the road before English River, and I knew that this rain was just the beginning of a major storm from the way the clouds were moving. If ever I was in a situation that said, “run or die,” this was it. So I said to myself I was going to run a complete marathon, with no breaks, in a thunderstorm, and that’s just the way it had to be.

An hour into my run, I was right on track, feeling strong and no need to stop – that’s about the time the thunder started. At first, I could hear it rumbling away off to the south, slowly moving north to pass over me. Eventually the sound started getting closer, and I could clearly see lightning strikes getting closer from the south and the west. During the second and third hours of that run, lightning was continuously striking near me on all sides, and the rain was coming down so hard that I had to put on my headlamp facing backwards to improve visibility for the truckers approaching me from behind: it was only late afternoon, but it was dark and you could hardly see further than a hundred feet or so. Despite all this – or really, possibly because of it? – I was absolutely killing it. I looked at my watch when I passed the 20 km mark (the highway was marked along this whole stretch), and it’s possible I miscalculated, but I was thinking it might be possible to break my own marathon PR (3:32)  while pushing the chariot through this crazy storm in the Arctic Watershed, so I was really going for it. Around the 30 km mark I realized that a PR definitely wouldn’t be possible, but I could still make a finishing time to be proud of when I looked back at this insane day.

I knew what I was doing was, in a sense, dangerous, in that time when I was surrounded by lightning and the ditches had all turned into rivers, but I also knew that to stop out here in the middle of nowhere could potentially be more dangerous. The challenge was also symbolic: I had been attempting to make up lost time for weeks, but was constantly losing what I made up because the schedule to which I’m trying to stick already pushes my limits with every day. So I knew that to make up a day that I’d lost would require something really special – a tremendous push, both physically and mentally. I had basically four psychological lines of defense during that time, through which I repeatedly cycled:

  1. The storm won’t last forever. Ultimately, everything is going to be fine.
  2. The thunderbirds are our friends and protectors, and they’re just throwing down with the fabulous underwater panther right now.
  3. If I can keep this up until English River, I’m going to (hopefully) have a supremely comfy and warm place to sleep tonight. I’ll take a shower, dry everything out, eat anything I want, etc.
  4. What I’m doing is ridiculously badass and I’ll probably remember it for the rest of my life.

The most amazing part of the whole run was watching the progress of the storm, keeping an eye on the clouds and observing it pass – oh-so-slowly – from the south (and a bit southwest) to the north over to my right. That was my most consoling thought during this time: just repeatedly telling myself that, like everything else, the storm was just another sensation that was arising and passing (vipassana talking again). I didn’t know how long it would last, but the storm had finite boundaries. I could sense its approach, feel my presence in the middle of it, and watch it go its merry way. That was pretty cool. By the final 10 kilometers of my electrically-charged marathon, the rain was noticeably lighter, until by the very end of my run it had become a drizzle.

When I hit the 42 km mark since Upsala, I took note of the time, and that 3:48:31 is a marathon time that I’ll always be proud of, even if I do (and why shouldn’t I?) someday break the 3-hour mark. I laughed and shouted and sang on the wet empty highway when I could see houses up ahead. I knew there was a possibility both the inns I’d seen advertised would be out of business or lack vacancies, but I had hope. I was particularly worried when the first one I passed was apparently permanently closed and all my hopes were on the second. Fortunately, it was open, looked nice, plenty vacant, and turned out to be friendly and low-cost to boot. I won’t bore you with trying to get across the ecstasy of all the trivial comforts I enjoyed that night at the English River Inn, but I was touched by a little note that the owners left out in all their rooms (here abbreviated):

Because this hotel is a human institution to serve people, and not solely a money making organization, we hope that God will grant you peace and rest while you are under our roof.

…We are all travelers. From ‘birth till death’ we travel between the eternities. May these days be pleasant for you, profitable for society, helpful for those you meet, and a joy to those who know and love you best.

I don’t know if that would have always hit home. Maybe it was just meeting the kind & trusting innkeepers themselves that prevented me from finding all that a bit cheesy, but, whatever the case, I was so grateful to be taken in after the events of the day that this kind of hospitality seemed pretty incredible.

The next morning, the skies cleared early on. I dried all my wet gear in the sun and had a fairly warm and sunny run to Ignace, the town of fire. As I walked through town the next morning, there were all these interpretive displays to educate visitors about how the landscape around the town, and its history, had been shaped by forest fires. Before Ignace was heavily settled, there was a fire watchtower that the government maintained to keep an eye on fires in the area: the tower was left intact as a curiosity for visitors, although by now its function has been replaced by scientific instruments which record and graph lightning strikes, paired with observation by helicopter. I was amazed, thinking what it would have been like to be the fire lookout, or “towerman.” Apparently the job attracted a unique type of individual, often solitary writers and thinkers who valued the time alone to study and meditate. The cabin on top of the tower was amazingly small: it was a bare, octagonal wooden cabin with windows on all sides, not much bigger than the cupola on top of my grandfather’s house. In the summer, it must have gotten really hot in there. It’s interesting how this caught my imagination when I was in Ignace, and only a week or two later I ended up staying with guys who fight forest fires, who told me all about this kind of work (and how the towerman’s job has become obsolete); furthermore, I just finished reading Kerouac’s The Dharma Bums, in which the main characters both work as fire lookouts in Washington state.

Sunset over Ignace from Tower Hill, the historic site of a fire lookout where I camped for the night.

But I could only escape the thunderstorms for so long. My next run was ill-fated, although it started out perfectly sunny. Only about 15 km in, I saw some clouds on the horizon, and in this part of Ontario, storm clouds tend to move very quickly. About half an hour later, I realized I’d get completely soaked again if I didn’t set up camp ASAP. I didn’t think I had it in me to tough it out the way I did out of Upsala, and I also had a hunch (a good one, it turned out) that the storm would last longer. In the nick of time, I got my camp set up on an abandoned road/trail off the highway, and it started pouring. I probably crawled into my sleeping bag around 5 pm… I didn’t get out until the next morning. Which is not to say that it was dry and comfortable. The problem with pitching my tent in this part of Northern Ontario, is that the landscape is dominated by the Canadian Shield, and you will usually hit solid rock only an inch or so below the soil. Thus, I wasn’t able to stake my tent down very well at all, and I got devoured by mosquitoes and blackflies while I was doing it. In rain as heavy as I had that night, the tent slowly flooded and became completely wet on the inside. My sleeping bag was soaking and there was nothing to do about it but lay there – still warm, at least – and sleep, hoping for better luck the next day.

And so on June 17th I gathered up my dripping gear and headed west again. It was sunny, and I felt better after finding a good flat chunk of Shield by the roadside, upon which to dry my tent, sleeping bag, mat, shoes, soul, etc.

I’m going to gloss over the details for a few days here, mostly because I’m so far behind on my blogging. One of my stops, “Borups Corners,” which looked like any other “town” on Google Maps, turned out to be two abandoned houses in the middle of nowhere – I’m pretty sure I just laughed when I saw the sign and rolled into town. That night was the one I found a Bavarian tavern in the middle of the woods, and after a royal feast, the proprietor (Manfred) suggested that, rather than camp that night, I sleep in their campground’s laundry room while the storm raged on. On my way to Dryden, taking shelter from a short storm that passed through, I made friends with this cool old Franco-Polish dude who’s riding across Canada on a recumbent bicycle, furiously lobing everything. I liked the ethos of his cross-country trip, which seemed different from a lot of cyclists I’ve met: he was so outgoing and open to new experiences, and also not afraid to stick out a little from the flock of eastbound pedal-pilgrims. He also had this brilliant division between the intense organization and planning he did before he left Paris, and the complete absence of planning and all-out going-with-the-flow he started once he set out from Vancouver: he just booked a flight home from Montreal in October, but he’ll be in Montreal by August, easy. To me, this contrasted charmingly with the control-freak / micromanaging aspect I’ve observed in some older male cyclists. He didn’t even bring a tent with him, just this cool hammock with a waterproof tarp and bug net – what a champion. “A name I use very often is ‘Alex,'” he said. “But, uh, is that your real name?” “Well, my real name is kind of complicated.” He scribbled something illegible in cyrillic in my notebook, saying, “If you google my name, you will find a book on tea that I have written. It is not very interesting to read, too scientific!”

“Alex”: “Many people do not realize that the expression ‘to be drunk like a Pole’ is actually a compliment!” (apparently Napoleon told his own hungover soldiers to “be drunk like a Pole” – that is, to be drunk yet still functional in battle.

I cleaned out an all-you-can-eat Indian buffet in Dryden and got rained on again that night, but in a well-staked tent on neatly manicured grass in the public park – nobody hassled me. I remember seeing the weather forecast as I headed out of Dryden, and it was just rain, rain, rain. And yet, it began to dry up just that afternoon, after a gentle mist that lasted a few hours. Outside Vermilion Bay, I camped in the Experimental Lakes Area, way up in the hills and off the main road. It was a pretty amazing region: you pass literally hundreds of separate lakes, one after the other, in the Canadian Shield’s last violent outburst before it disappears and you enter the prairies. Unfortunately I woke up one of these mornings with my knee feeling sore in a way that it hadn’t before, and really freaked me out at the time, so I was taking it easy and walking and stretching a lot / feeling a little stressed. Fortunately, this went away after around Kenora, and I haven’t felt it since – so, nothing to get upset over.

Scary gorilla (??) in Vermilion Bay.

Kenora was lovely. Viviane, my wonderful Brazilian hostess who just finished her first year at McGill Law (THANKS AGAIN BEN FLIGHT), didn’t get out of work until later, so I passed a sunny afternoon getting in a good strength workout in the park, checking out the scenery, and getting my money’s worth at a rather grimy Chinese buffet (the nice old guy who I think owned the place spoke English well enough that every time he thought of a good sentence to say, he’d come over to refill my water glass and try it out). As I was walking around town, I ran into a guy my age who was obviously cycling across the country, so, like I usually do, I said hi and swapped stories a bit. Henri, like “Alex,” seemed like he had a similarly laid-back ethos to his bike trip, and he had a skateboard awkwardly strapped to the back of his bike. It turned out that he and his girlfriend Megan (who appeared shortly) were doing the cross-country thing together, starting from Victoria, where they live. We all decided to go for a beer together on a terrace around the corner, and we told stories of, complained about, praised various aspects of the lands we’d covered recently – they’d pass right through all the places I was just in and vice versa, so it was fun to compare notes. Megan studied my itinerary and added a cute extra layer of paratext in the margins (remarks like, “good food burgers and borscht at Motor Inn McMunn off highway on your right,” or “good grocer here! 99 cent graham crackers.”) She also gave me a little seed kit to start making my own sprouts en route – she makes sprouts in a jar in her bag. Henri got out maps and started explaining very slowly and carefully how to find the vacant campground at Falcon Lake, and the way to their friend Jackie’s place in Portage. They were both such energetic, happy, beautiful people that I started to feel a sense of lonely self-absorption in the massive run I’m undertaking all on my own – secondary, of course, to my happiness at having made these new friends, but there nonetheless. Just as we were parting, Henri jokingly said I’d one-upped them enormously in how driven and ambitious my trip was, in an athletic sense. What I didn’t say, but thought, was that the only one who’d been one-upped was me: who cares how many miles I run in a day if I’m not happy? I’m making progress out here and I’m having a lot of awesome experiences, but I don’t feel like I’m on the same level of engagement with present reality as these two, joyously and haphazardly making their way across Canada together, eating fresh sprouts grown en-route. Later, I would think of them with a mixture of affection and gladness for the meeting, and a potent sense of envy for the love and positive energy at the roots of their whole trip.

With Henri and Megan at a waterfront beer garden in Kenora, drinking FREE BEER (thanks, nice waitress who thought there might have been something wrong with that pitcher).

In Clearwater Bay, I camped on an incredible expanse of Shield, off in the woods, that just happened to have a patch of moss that was barely long, wide, and deep enough to stake my tent properly: it was cool, spending the night on this giant sheet of rock that the Chariot could just glide over with ease as if it was a road. I finished reading On the Road, and I sang a lot.

Staking my tent into the Canadian Shield for the last time in Clearwater Bay.

I guess you could say that was my fond farewell to the Canadian Shield, because the next day I would cross the long-awaited border into Manitoba. After some fifty-odd days in the massive wilderness of Northern Ontario, I was going to enter the flat, sunny expanses of the prairies. It was really something to be excited about.

Turning 25 in Thunder Bay & beyond (June 10-13)

•June 29, 2012 • 1 Comment

Terry Fox wasn’t all there was to Thunder Bay, and I’d love to talk a bit about the good people & times that I’ll remember from that place. It was a very hot and humid afternoon when I ran into town and met up with my friend Benjamin pretty close to “downtown.” Thunder Bay’s urban structure was interesting (or kind of uninteresting) in that its lack of a downtown was of a different order from towns like North Bay or Pembroke. Of course it had a strip mall situation, but this wasn’t overwhelming; it’s just that it was quite a sprawl, and from what I understand there were “two downtowns,” historically different settlements or something. Benjamin lived more or less in the middle of all this and walked every day to his job as a legal aide (side note: by now I have stayed with three McGill Law students working as legal aides in three different northern Ontario cities. I’m very grateful to Chelsea [Sudbury], Ben [T. Bay] and Viviane [Kenora], who were all wonderful hosts. But I’m most indebted to Ben, who actually hooked me up with all these connections!) The cool thing about his neighborhood was the really unexpectedly strong Finnish presence: he lived right across the street from this old-school Finnish sauna that’s apparently a big deal in town, and also pretty close to this famous Finnish restaurant, Hoito. I could walk down the street and literally hear old guys speaking Finnish to each other.

You encounter a lot of these interesting ethnic enclaves in the middle of Canada, which has been cool to discover. For instance, a few days later I stumbled into this Bavarian tavern in the middle of the wilderness 20 km east of Kenora that looked like it had been airlifted straight from Bavaria: I dined on zigeunerschnitzel with spaetzle and an awesome dunkelweiss, and even got served by a jolly plump mädchen! Or another example is the German/Russian/Mennonite community in Steinbach, where I stayed with Doug & Leona Woodmass. I’ve been realizing the fairly obvious truth that Canada is a far younger country than the US, in spite of all their similarities… for the most part, I feel that the well-known immigrant communities in the US (you know, random things like the Hungarians in New Brunswick NJ, or the Pennsylvania Dutch) tend to be more historical tidbits the vestiges of which can still be seen – but in Canada it’s relatively normal to hear different languages spoken on the street. Obviously Montreal has this all over the place: the Portuguese presence in the Plateau, the Chinese, or even all the Russian I hear on the street. Maybe this digression is old news to a lot of my readers, but I thought it was pretty cool.

Anyway! I had an awesome time staying with Ben (two days, as I had a rest day scheduled), who I probably should have started hanging out with a long time ago; actually, though we were acquainted through mutual friends before, we hadn’t really talked too much prior to my showing up at his house in Thunder Bay. On the 10th, we went out to the local hipster pub, the Sovereign Room, which turned out to have a fantastic beer selection (drafts & bottled imports) and way better food than either of us was expecting. I was living large and ordered both a whole flammkuche and the best latkes I’d ever tasted, all washed down with some decent local ale the name of which I can’t recall. Ben wasn’t too hungry and I ended up eating a lot of his excellent poutine with confit de canard. And this is just a pub – not too pricey! My theory is, when you live in a random small Ontario city in the boonies like Thunder Bay, you only get one chance at making a good hipster gastro-brewpub type operation, so they’re forced to get it right on the first try. If this place was in Montreal, I’d go there all the time. Same with the Happy Buddha in Sudbury, where Chelsea took me. Good times!

June 11th was my glorious day off, where I had all sorts of little missions to accomplish during the day – just stuff that falls by the wayside in the rhythm of running more than a marathon, then crawling into your tent every night. So I got a haircut and felt a little more respectable, and then paid a visit to a new friend I made a couple weeks before and gave me her address in T. Bay. So, flash back to a couple weeks before for a moment: I met Terry when I was killing time at the picnic area by the giant thermometer in White River: she was this pretty radical-looking chick with a gray cat on a leash, and she looked a little bit out of her element / distressed. I happen to have this thing for gray cats, and besides, I’m making an effort to be a more sociable person here, so I struck up a conversation. She had been in the process of moving from Sault Ste. Marie to Thunder Bay, in order to move in with a new girlfriend, but sort of got stranded in White River for a few hours (long story). On a superficial level, we might come off as different people, but I thought she was really cool and we had some experiences in common (besides getting stranded in White River). Maybe I just empathize with the role that cycling has in her life, because it seems like she became a pretty hardcore cyclist and got into fitness stuff simultaneously with a lot of major life changes, and those seem like things she relies on for her psychological wellbeing – like me. Whatever the case, I dropped in at her place that hot afternoon in Thunder Bay, and it turns out her girlfriend is crazy jealous about everything and was bothered that I was there at all. Look at me, messing up the relationships of 40 year-old lesbians. Anyway, Terry, a cool new friend – I hope we keep in touch. She’s a bit of an energy supplement junkie, so she gifted me three little phials of ginseng extract I’m keeping around for a rainy day. (I’m actually getting into energy drinks myself… sometimes a can of Monster/Rockstar/Red Bull/Whoopass/whatever can make all the difference in a day’s run. But I try to keep that to only once or twice a week.)

The giant thermometer of questionable veracity which is White River’s most distinguishing characteristic. According to Jen Taylor, whose grandfather (?) was the resident meteorologist when their record-breakingly low temperature was recorded, the mercury may have stuck that day. Note my sweet ride for the day off.

Terry, making the most of getting stuck in White River for the afternoon.

Terry’s cat, Gravy, is over 20 years old, and was a total trooper under the circumstances.

Another thing I did on that rest day was pick up a nice bottle of scotch, both to celebrate my birthday and as something to share with Benjamin, who is also an aficionado of Islay malts. It was a bit of a gamble because I’d never heard of Dun Bheagan, but gosh, what a lucky choice! When he got back from work, we had a beautiful afternoon, sitting around on his back porch in the sun, lobing that fine whisky. Later we went out for food, and I turned 25 only moments after watching the Devils lose the Stanley Cup to the Kings – funny how it seemed like none of the people in the pub were even remotely interested in the outcome of that game, since all it was was NJ and LA. But it was a grand way to celebrate my birthday, or rather my “birthday eve,” since I’d be taking off the next morning.

And so, on my actual birthday, I was running west again, into unknown territory, and bidding farewell to Lake Superior. The consolation prize of this (besides just the change of pace) was that it was a good deal less hilly. I also got an amazing chance to watch two young red foxes playing with each other, tussling around in the grass! I got rained on a bit, but only for about twenty minutes in the middle of which Estelí surprised me with a bday phone call – too bad about the timing, but a cool birthday gesture.

They really let me get pretty close and watch for a while.

A little bit of wrasslin’!

I’m not usually the type to make a big deal out of my birthday, but interestingly enough, this turned out to be like the birthday that just keeps on giving, because I had an interesting chance encounter the next day which revolved around the June 12th date. I had just entered the Arctic Watershed (the point past which all streams flow north into the Arctic Ocean), and I pulled over at a rest area in Lac des Mille Lacs to have a bit of dinner. As I was chowing down, I heard the convenience store clerk guy talking to the cook, and asking him how his birthday was the day before. I said, “Hey, your birthday was yesterday? Mine too,” and so we established this pretty odd chance connection. Jeff was only a couple years older than me, and he had been working all day the day before and hadn’t really celebrated; in fact, I hadn’t really done much on my actual birthday, either. Jeff said, “All right! I’m finishing work in a few minutes, so how about you come over for a beer and we can celebrate our birthday?” DONE. Furthermore, he was offering me a couch for the night, which later turned out to be a bona fide bed!

Entering the Arctic Watershed.

It was such an unlikely connection, and yet such a totally excellent one. Jeff lived in this trailer behind the rest area that was included for free as a perk of his job, and warned me that bears got into the trash pretty much every night. We hung out with a couple beers, and I shared the Dun Bheagan with him, which evidently totally blew his mind with its rich peaty flavors. He showed me some music & beats he’s working on (pretty good!) and we talked about hip-hop. I was dismayed to hear that Mystikal is evidently back in jail (he just got out!)

We talked a lot about living and working in the bush, and he and Randall (the other guy who worked there) really piqued my interest about working a totally different kind of job in the oil fields. Both of them had worked for a time out in Alberta, doing oil-related jobs: Jeff’s was as one of the “seismic” guys: basically, spending the whole day walking from location to location, checking up on these meters. According to him, a pretty simple job that was physically but not mentally demanding. Jobs like this pay over $5000 a month, plus free lodging and a per diem for food… unreal. He kept telling me if I could handle the wilderness and fitness aspects of my current trip, I’d have no problem with it, although the days are long and you don’t get weekends off – so now I keep thinking, “gee, I could be doing something in ways quite similar to what I’m doing right now, except that I would have made a ton of money this summer doing it.” Doing some sort of hard yet remunerative physical labor out in the bush somewhere in Canada is a concept that appeals to me right now, and I’ve found myself thinking about it increasingly often. People always talk about tree planting, which of course has a whole different hip scene built up around it, but also pays well… then there’s the forest fire fighters I met, whose work is extremely interesting. But that’s a whole ‘nother story, and I’ll tell it later!

A place called Sunshine, good omen (June 12). On a side note, why is it that all sports sunglasses instantly make you look like a douchebag?

Entering Thunder Bay / Terry Fox / Ideology & Politics (June 10)

•June 26, 2012 • 1 Comment

Arriving in Thunder Bay was a big moment, both in my lived reality and, I guess, symbolically. Not only was Thunder Bay the end point of a very challenging portion of wilderness stretches (maybe the most challenging of the whole run), and the end of 700 km along Lake Superior, but it is famous as the place that Terry Fox collapsed on the road, unable to go any further. For those (Americans) out there who don’t know about Terry Fox, I’d recommend you just read the wikipedia article before going any further – a lot of Canadians consider him hands-down the greatest Canadian who ever lived… it wasn’t just the fact that he was a cancer patient running across Canada with only one leg, or the money that he raised for cancer research, but also the sense of unity inherent in his whole vision of a trans-Canada run. Any way you slice it, this was a seriously incredible human being, and one I’d like to learn more about – therefore, a stop at the Terry Fox memorial was mandatory for me on my way in to Thunder Bay. All the same, it is frustrating to be constantly compared to him, because I’m really not trying to “compete” in any sense, and our missions are fundamentally different. More on that later.

The last day or so before Thunder Bay was really one of the most difficult stretches of the whole trip. I had assumed that the 90 km from Nipigon to Thunder Bay would be relatively inhabited/civilized, or at least have a few stores and gas stations, because T. Bay is one of the major cities of northern Ontario. I was caught off-guard by how empty it was, and I was starving when I finally made it to the outskirts of town! Starving and wet… in Nipigon, the OPP officers who pulled me over to check in with me (my mom had called them, worried about me, because I hadn’t been able to text/call/basically do anything in days, out of cell coverage and in the bush) suggested I hole up there for the night, because there was a storm coming and there was “really nothing between here and Thunder Bay.” The thing is, you just can’t believe that kind of negative talk every time you hear it, because the majority of times, whoever’s saying it is way less hardcore than you are: if you end up taking their advice, the storm will probably turn out to be some crappy little shower, or “nothing” will turn out to be only a few small towns with gas stations, etc. I had taken strangers’ advice in situations like this before and then reproached myself for not pushing forward when I had the energy, and so I was determined to move on from Nipigon at the time. Needless to say, the light sprinkles which were happening as the whole town of Nipigon gawked at the spandex-clad stroller-pushing dark bearded guy getting interviewed by the OPP quickly turned into more of a downpour, so I had to camp only about 10 or 15 km down the road. The worst thing about that was that the “nothing” those guys mentioned turned out to be just that, and all I had to eat was a 1 kg bag of trail mix and some candy bars. It was actually a lot of calories, but I had to ration that stuff very seriously over the next 24 hours! And I never wanted to eat that brand of trail mix again once I was done.

There isn’t much to say about that stretch, I guess. It was the beginning of a period of a couple weeks where I just seemed to be constantly getting soaked, and never able to dry out my slightly damp gear. It was also a time where I was compulsively eating as many calories as humanly possible. This was actually a necessary discipline I had to develop because of how much I burn every day (I maintain that 6000 calories is a good daily number to shoot for, to maintain my extremely stable weight of 162-163), but there were maybe some times when I overdid it and felt gross, in the interests of developing that discipline. It feels weird at first, because it’s often more than you want, in terms of pure desire in the moment. But I don’t want to come out of this run emaciated – it’s not for reasons of physical vanity, but because ultrarunners truly need core and upper-body strength to do what we do. If I lose that whole-body fitness, my spine is just going to lose its support and I’ll feel terrible. It might end up hurting me in the long run.

In Sault Ste. Marie, I twice patronized Scoops ice cream parlor, where I barely made it through the “P-Nutty Buddy.” I swear that cup weighed several pounds and it was only my endurance instincts that got me through.

All this perhaps to justify the epic repast I enjoyed when I reached the outskirts of Thunder Bay on a Sunday afternoon, and ate lunch at the Missing Horse Restaurant. First, I took the edge off my hunger at the adjacent convenience store with a banana, a half liter of OJ mixed with “Amazing Grass” green superfood powder, and a heaping cone of Rum-Raisin ice cream. Next, I went into the Missing Horse and ordered the following: bacon cheeseburger with fries & coleslaw, grilled cheese, hot dog, and a root beer float. The waitress was skeptical and told me their burgers were BIG – I told her my hunger knew no bounds. When I cleaned up all that, she gave me a free butter tart and I was generally applauded by all the nice folks in this restaurant. They gave me directions to run down scenic Lakeshore Drive, rather than the Trans-Canada, ’til I got into Thunder Bay, and to pay tribute to the Terry Fox memorial.

Want to hear something deeply, bizarrely ironic? The Terry Fox memorial, located at a highway rest area named after the man, is not legally accessible by foot or bicycle, but only by car. For some reason (and it isn’t clear why), Highway 17 suddenly becomes illegal to bike on about 20 km before you get into Thunder Bay, so the last run of Terry Fox’s life is not something that anybody can repeat. I ran on (parallel) Lakeshore Drive like people recommended, but when I reached the memorial, I illegally cut over onto the highway for a couple kilometers to see it and pay tribute. I’m glad I did.

National hero and martyr, he got up at 4 am every morning to lopsidedly “run” a marathon every day. It looks really slow and painful in all the video clips.

No matter what you do… it will never be this hardcore.

But I have problems with the resulting expectation that anybody who’s running across Canada (or doing anything like that) must be raising money for a cause.

Why I’m not “raising money for cancer,” or for anything else

I hope I’ve made it clear that I respect not only the athletic audacity and achievements of Terry Fox (and all those who have followed in his footstep), but also his commitment to fighting the cancer epidemic. At the same time, I am constantly feeling uneasy and frustrated when people ask me why I’m doing what I’m doing, and seem to expect that there’s a charitable motive behind my run. I’m not kidding at all when I say that  this question is literally the first words out of folks’ mouths about half the time. (“So, are you doing that for a cause or something?” / “Are you raising money for cancer?”) When I knew I wanted to run across Canada, that was all I knew… it was what I wanted to do, for a complex melange of reasons. I was obviously aware of this fund-raising precedent, something a lot of cyclists do as well, but it seemed somehow inauthentic for me to do that, and it took me a long time to figure out why I felt that way.

It is fundamentally a problem of ideology: the truth is, I just don’t think that money makes people happy. By writing this on the internet, I realize I’m opening myself up to abuse, but I don’t even think that money makes people healthy. The hard truth is that cancer, obesity, diabetes, and heart disease are epidemics in today’s society not because there is too little money in the world, but because people have lost the art of healthy and balanced living. I have compassion for the people who suffer from these problems, but I don’t think that throwing money at cancer research can ever solve them. In the three decades since Terry Fox, do you think there’s more or less cancer in North America? I’m not an expert, but I believe the statistics would say more. I honestly believe that the only way to solve massive societal problems like this is on the individual level – by being an example of and promoting lifestyle changes… I know I’m not like some shining example of healthy eating on this run, but that’s because I don’t have a support crew and I need to get the calories whenever and however I can. On the other hand, it’s possible that by doing what I’m doing, and by shocking hundreds of people who drive by or meet me every day, I am changing their perceptions of what constitutes human fitness and human physical capabilities.

I maintain that running across Canada is not just an extreme athletic feat or some sort of Forrest Gump feel-good spiritual adventure or whatever (though of course it is all these things), but also a politically radical action. I’m reclaiming and repurposing public space which is normally used only by cars, and reminding people that it is actually possible to cover very great distances using pure human power. I think that running is always a radical form of exercise, because, at the most basic level, there is absolutely no need for any kind of gear or purchase. Of course, it would be an amazing and highly beneficial change in the world if everybody were to start commuting by bicycle instead of car, but even a bicycle is a consumer product and – eventually, at the end of its life – another piece of trash. Running from point A to point B is radical even if it isn’t really practical… it calls into question the whole structure of society. I would not want to sum up my whole mission in this sort of spiel, because it would sound like I had a serious stick up my ass! Talking about politics isn’t real life! And it wouldn’t even begin to capture all the reasons I’ve wanted to run across Canada. I mean, most of the people close to me are aware that the main reason I need to do this is to clear my own mind, to find some measure of peace and happiness. The real reason my run across Canada is not a selfish act, even though it isn’t about fundraising and might appear to be purely personal, is because I’m trying to repair myself to be a functional and helpful member of society… I want to be a teacher and help people, but you’ve got to help yourself first.

And this ties into why I’m not raising money for some charitable organization whose mission has more resonance in my life, too. Like, why not run across Canada and raise money for some organization that gives help to people who are seriously depressed, like I was this past year? It’s a tricky question. It has been done before, and I have immense respect for that whole enterprise… a guy who is anxious and depressed runs across Canada to raise money and awareness for the anxious and depressed. To me, that is powerful. That guy was obviously doing what he was doing because he found that running was therapeutic for himself. And yet, that project takes part in a social system I can’t put my faith in. Money simply will not ever make anyone happy, and change happens on the individual level, always. I always think of Konstantin Levin in Anna Karenina, and how he becomes frustrated with agricultural politics and the zemstvo movement: Levin realized that in order for his farm to flourish, he just had to buckle down, whip his serfs into shape and – pardon the colloquialism – git’r’done. You’re responsible for your own farm, and putting some work into it is going to benefit the whole country. I guess I’m a believer in that good old Thomas Jefferson kind of Republicanism. I like to think that my run across Canada is doing its own small part to impact people on a personal level: the many people I meet who decide to give running another try, or who think more critically about their own health and fitness for having met me. Or perhaps the people who realize that walking 2 or 3 miles to work is a totally feasible thing to do. Or those who are depressed and unhappy with life, who see me running 50 km every day and think, “well, shit, at least I don’t have to do that!” I’m sort of kidding there, but what I really mean is I think that the only contribution I’m capable of making to anybody is a non-monetary one: it’s just a little bit of inspiration, a little bit of a challenge. Another way of phrasing this idea could be: it isn’t possible to positively impact or change someone’s life without actually meeting them face-to-face. Personally, I think Terry Fox’s greatest contribution to the world was on a more human level than people realize, and obviously in a much bigger way than I can even hope to emulate. He met and inspired thousands of Canadians firsthand. He was pitting himself against a problem that was deep and existential, walking the path of an ascetic, yet also making the most of what little life he had left. He was proving that even when it seems that everything has been taken away from you (i.e. the loss of his leg), there is still so much.

Whew, I know this entry has been all mixed up, but these are things I think about a lot. Maybe they’re things I think about so much that it becomes increasingly difficult to put them into words the longer I wait, so at least this is a start. I hope this expresses some part of what I’m trying to accomplish.

Two quotes upon which to chew:

“Dreams are made if people only try. I believe in miracles… I have to… because somewhere the hurting must stop.” – Terry Fox

‎”Each of us possesses a tangible living soul. The system has no such thing. We must not allow the system to exploit us.” – Haruki Murakami

Sault Ste. Marie to Thunder Bay (May 24 – June 9)

•June 26, 2012 • 6 Comments

Sault to Thunder Bay… 700 km of long wilderness stretches and monster hills. A landscape inhabited by bears, wolves, lynx, cougars (if the locals are to be believed), and unique individuals who drive big black trucks. Incredible landscapes and provincial parks, and the road always returning to the largest freshwater lake in the world. Lake Superior continuously reappearing over the crests of big hills, staring back at me like the ocean in “Solaris” and, at times, contributing to the feeling that I might be losing my mind like in the film. When Terry Fox ran his Marathon of Hope, this was, tragically but truly, the portion that wore him out for good. In my own planning phase, this last fact definitely cast an intimidating pall over the planned two weeks’ running, and I felt that it would be the toughest part of my whole cross-country run. It was the run of my dreams and the run of my nightmares, the Big Bad Run that I’d get excited but also anxious thinking about. Well, I came out the other side, and yes, it was everything I thought it would be. It would be difficult to recount all the things that happened, and running, eating, and finding shelter have proven to constitute such a full-time job that I haven’t been able to write nearly as much as I’d like to, but I do have a selection of memories to share.

If by “wilderness” you mean “private lakefront cabin with in-deck hot tub”…

In Sault Ste. Marie, I stayed with Davey & Jen Taylor and their three kids (Finn, Angus & Molly), who were at first a very distant connection – Charlotte had hooked me up with these folks through her friend Spike, who’s Davey’s brother. Despite how convoluted all that might sound, it definitely turned out to be the right place at the right time, for so many reasons: Davey used to work in the fitness industry and has run a few marathons/ultras, and now he’s a schoolteacher, so we had a lot to talk about. The whole family took such good care of me, and were such good friends, that it was a little sad leaving Sault, which I’d also found to be an all-around pretty nice town, and a haven of amazing hospitality. (It was a great place for a rest day – root beer floats & ice cream sundaes at Scoops, sitting on a bench by the bay, looking across the water at the stars & stripes flying in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan!) The consolation prize for leaving this place of comfort and happiness for some 230 km of “nothing” (from Sault to Wawa) was that the Taylors gave me directions to not even one, but two cabins along my route, where I could stay the night. Jen’s dad, Brian, who I’d met at a barbecue / birthday party situation in Sault, had built a beautiful cabin right on the shore of Lake Superior, halfway between Sault and Wawa at a place called Montreal River. I thought Sault to Wawa was going to be, like, the ultimate in roughing it, wilderness in the extreme, and now I was being offered this lakeside cabin to hang out in all on my own?

Big numbers. “Marathon” is right.

That kind of road.

The run to Montreal River (two days) was incredible: I knew the scenery was going to be something special, but when I got my first glimpse of Superior over one of those big hills, it was truly like nothing I’d seen before or expected to see. The terrain was extremely hilly, but somehow in those first two days, there was a strong impression of it being a net downhill, so I had all these long exhilarating downhill races with the chariot… truly an emotional high. And then, when I arrived at the Taylor camp at Montreal River, it was like a dream come true. Brian is such a creative guy when it comes to building – now that I’ve seen a few of his cabins I’ve come to appreciate what he does with weird, cast-aside / oddly-shaped pieces of wood and root structures that he integrates into the building. It was basically this open-concept log cabin with a nice upright piano to noodle around on, a cast-iron bathtub installed on the porch, an incredible stretch of pebbly beach on Superior, and a phone that I was invited to use.

The Taylor camp at Montreal River, all mine for an extremely relaxing evening.

You can see a bit of Brian’s creative woodworking in the interior here, and also his “open-concept”/community-minded layout design philosophy. What an absolutely beautiful little house.

I started off the evening by running the tub, getting in and soaking for a while, and eating a recovery meal and sipping a glass of whiskey on the rocks. When I was feeling really good and the hot water had done all it could for my body, I ran down to the beach – totally naked – and just jumped in Lake Superior, leaving the tub full for my return. Superior was colder, cleaner and clearer than any lake I’ve ever been in. I was shivering and my body was having minor spasms as I hobbled back up to the deck to jump in the tub. Naturally, that’s when Brian turned up to say hello, but the first words I heard him say in my vulnerable and mortified state were, “You got a motor in that thing?” Of course I had no idea what he was talking about and assumed the worst, but after he repeated it, I realized he was actually just not weirded out at all by the fact that I was naked, and was asking if the chariot ran on any kind of motor power. This is the guy whose grandson described him to me as “a piece of work,” and who, when I first met him at the cookout, grabbed my shoulder, stared right into my eyes, and said, “You better not give up! ‘Cause you might never get another chance!” A major figure in the eastern Lake Superior portion of my run.

Oh, yeah, life is really hard out there in the bush.

Feeling overheated from the hot tub? Just go down to the beach and jump naked into the largest and most beautiful lake in the world (possibly also one of the coldest).

Brian and his wife Caroline lived just a little ways from the Taylor camp, so when he surprised me that evening, he was just dropping in to say hi. Once I got dressed, we got in his big red pickup truck, which was blasting the latest Leonard Cohen album, and he poured me a glass of wine (a weird feeling, drinking a glass of red wine in a truck) and took me to see a cabin he’s putting the finishing touches on for an artist who lives in the area. Some of the woodwork in this place was really incredible – I feel like he was pulling out all the stops to impress this city slicker artist guy who was paying him to build the cabin. My favorite touch: Brian did this really awesome piece of wood carving across the ceiling of the master bedroom, incorporating all kinds of animal and human shapes. Hidden at one end of it, he incorporated the silhouette of his wife’s nude body. Brian gleefully pointed this out, and related how, when he showed the artist/client guy, the latter had said he wasn’t sure how he felt about having that in his bedroom. “Well, too damn bad!” he cackled to me. Brian thought it was pretentious that this guy wanted a bathroom in his cabin, rather than the standard outhouse.

But really, it was cool seeing all these places that Brian had built and talking about them with him. Each one was a combination of artistry & craftsmanship, and considering house design & land use was an interesting topic. I love the way that what Montreal types might call “green building practices” are just common sense to a guy from another generation and another level of removal from the city.

In the sanctuary of the Clivus Multrum, swathed in the clothing of thunderbirds.

That first half of the run from Sault to Wawa was a lot of fun and not so difficult. When I left Montreal River at 2 pm feeling all well-rested and good, however, reality kicked in! Whereas there had been a few dwellings, restaurants, gas stations, etc. for that first 110 km, everything disappeared when I entered the long stretch of road that passes through Lake Superior Provincial Park. It was an extremely beautiful run, of course, but a little less hospitable, especially when stormclouds showed up on the horizon just as I left Montreal River. I probably ran for an hour or two before it started raining, and I was just beginning to realize that it was time to pay for those nice downhills, when it started really pouring down. Miraculously (since there was really nothing for miles around), a road sign appeared with a few icons indicating concepts like “bathroom,” “camping”, “hiking,” and the only word on the sign was “PICTOGRAM.” So I’m like, “What the heck is a pictogram? I hardly care as long as there’s some kind of roof under which I might be able to take shelter.” Although I was utterly soaked and pretty cold, in my mind it was amazing coincidence that I’d found any sort of shelter at all right at that moment when it became apparent that I needed it.

Well, the rain wasn’t letting up, so my camp for the night was under the 3- or 4-foot roof overhang of the one roofed structure for many miles around, the composting toilet at Agawa Rock – and you can bet I was thankful for it. I always thought composting toilets were a pretty cool idea, but after this experience where Rikard Lindström’s clivus multrum appeared for me when I needed it most, I really consider them friends. It was a bit of a gloomy night, but also a kind of beautiful one, watching and listening to the storm on this little porch/balustrade deal, huddled in my damp sleeping bag, waving off mosquitoes. It was a long and intense thunderstorm, with heavy rain and thunder coming and going, and the constant dripping of the soggy forest. Haruki Murakami was there for me in Kindle form, thank God.

My shelter for the night, roof overhang of the composting toilet at Agawa Rock.

When I woke up in the dim morning, which hardly looked any different from the previous evening – all gray, dripping and misty – there was a thick and ubiquitous fog. The mountains in the distance were hardly visible through the fog. Laying there in my sleeping bag, considering what “pictogram” might mean, at some point I put two and two together, and remembered having heard the name “Agawa Rock” before. I realized that the pictograms that sign had been talking about were probably the native rock paintings Al Purdy talked about in his poem, “The Horseman of Agawa,” something I’d read in Lecker’s Canadian Lit class a couple of years ago and faintly remembered. It’s a really conversational account of his own visit to Agawa Rock, scaling that sheer rock wall to see and touch the marks left hundreds of years ago by another people, and feeling deeply impressed and perhaps somehow connected to those people and that time in spite of the distance between two cultures. I found it online, later, and was glad I had looked it up:

http://cdm15126.contentdm.oclc.org/cdm/compoundobject/collection/p201201coll1/id/2669/rec/24

My own experience at Agawa Rock was strangely like Purdy’s, in terms of both circumstances and the experience I had. It was spring, and there were no platforms. In fact, I think Agawa Rock is probably the most dangerous public landmark I’ve ever seen, a place which the government takes care of and puts up informational placards at, but where you could easily lose your life if you weren’t careful!

But the view, both looking out from the rock wall, and of course the pictograms themselves, were incredible, and it’s hard not to feel like it was a fate thing that I ended up there that morning. There wasn’t a soul at the rock on this foggy spring morning after a thunderstorm, so I was all alone, wandering around the incredible forest paths that surround it and exercising extreme caution as I walked along a long crack in the rock slope that provided traction: if it wasn’t there, it would be a lot easier to slide right down into cold, clear, clean Lake Superior. There was a life ring sitting out by the rock for the purpose of rescuing someone who fell in, and the signs warned that unpredictable rogue waves occasionally came up out of the lake and washed people away. I was awed by the power of this enormous lake, which in three days I had only begun to circumnavigate.

Agawa Rock – most dangerous public landmark in Canada?

There were some placards installed around the area that told a bit about the history of the pictograms, and also about Ojibwe culture. When I read these, I got a bit of a chill: they told me that in Ojibwe mythology, “thunderbirds” were considered the protectors of mankind. The fog which follows a thunderstorm was the clothing in which the thunderbirds wrapped themselves, and it was only at these times and during thunderstorms that they manifested themselves to humans. Any thunderstorm was a conflict between the thunderbirds – our protectors – and Mishipeshu, the lynx-shaped water spirit that resided in Lake Superior. (One translation I found of the name Mishipeshu was: “fabulous underwater panther.”)

Mishepishu, up close on Agawa Rock.

Yeah, I’ll admit, this episode got me a bit spooked. In fact, not just spooked, but I was feeling a sense of reverence for the tradition I had entered. I pull over to this place in the middle of the most intense thunderstorm I’ve yet encountered, and informational placards promptly inform me that what I’m experiencing is the thunderbirds & the underwater panther, duking it out, possibly over the fate of a human or humans. It was immensely comforting to think of that incredible fog as the clothing of the thunderbirds, watching over us and averting disaster. The bottom line is, after finding a roof for the night and seeing so much beauty in the morning, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I’d been taken care of by a greater power. Ever since, whenever there’s been a thunderstorm, I try to tell myself not to worry, because the thunderbirds are our friends! It’s that devious/fabulous underwater panther you have to watch out for, and so – at the suggestion of a placard that talked about offerings the Ojibwe would make to Mishipeshu, to ensure their safe passage – I poured out a bit of whisky for the old lynx. Hope he doesn’t mind rye.

Swathed in the clothing of the thunderbirds, the morning after a big storm.

Do fabulous underwater panthers drink rye? A rhetorical question which could easily be the title of a Philip K. Dick novel.

Anyway, I’m still alive. So it must have worked, right?

Breaking through

The rest of my run through Lake Superior Provincial Park was fairly uneventful, and it got really cold towards the end. I got behind schedule because of my (good) choice to stick out that thunderstorm under a roof, and arrived in Wawa a day late, greeted by freezing temps. The forecast was calling for -1 C that night, so I caved in and went to a motel. I mean, I just went through what I at least thought was going to be the hardest 230 km of the whole run, and a thunderstorm, and my camping gear is not intended for freezing temperatures, so it seemed justifiable. I was feeling a tiny bit worn out.

The next 24 hours turned out to be extremely interesting. Basically, tired out and in this motel, I just said I was going to do whatever I felt like, whenever I felt like it. First of all, that meant eating a lot: that night I had a big meal out somewhere, and the next morning I had two 12-inch subs at Subway and a couple cookies… and then later I got three donuts from Tim Hortons. And that night, I watched probably close to three whole movies on TV in the motel (the truth is, I really miss movies!)

I wasn’t thinking my two-day, 90 km run from Wawa to White River was going to be anything special, especially when I was leaving Wawa at 2 pm having eaten this huge meal and a bunch of donuts. But I was just doing what I felt like, and as it turned out, once I hit the road at 2, I felt like RUNNING! I didn’t start with any walk to warm up at all, just got into it right off. The weather was just right, and the hills had chilled out considerably since the mountainous terrain in LSPP. When I started running, I wasn’t seriously thinking I could make it to White River that night, but as I kept going and it just felt effortless, I reconsidered, and I kept recomputing the sort of pace I’d have to take to get there before it was too dark. So I basically said, ok, run now because you feel like it – don’t worry about making it tonight, but just maybe today is a special kind of day, and if that’s the case, go with it.

It turned out to be an extremely special day, God knows why. I simply never felt tired and never felt like I wanted to stop. I breezed past the point where it had been a marathon (there were road markers every 2 km) in 3:51 and didn’t feel like it was necessary to take any kind of break just yet. I was hoping that a store of some kind would materialize soon, but not before the 50k mark, because I was obviously going to crush my PR for the 50k today. Well, a store turned up before the 50k mark, just as I passed “Desolation Lake” and then “Fungus Lake,” so I figured I better stop and at least fill my water bottles – because I sure as hell wasn’t filling them with desolation or fungus water. I filled the bottles with the most iron-heavy water in Canada, downed a Red Bull and an ice cream sandwich, took some other stuff for the road and had the shortest conversation I could with the store owner before heading on. With the clock still ticking during all that time, I hit my 50k at 4 hours, 46 minutes: in spite of my stops and pushing the Chariot, I’d taken 20 minutes off the time I made in the Mount Royal Summit Quest two years ago, a race for which I tapered.

It was just totally unreal, the energy I had that day. I kept going, only taking maybe 30 minutes to walk after I hit the 50k point – but even my walking pace was bizarrely fast, maybe 8 kph instead of my usual 6? Not only was I going fast when I was walking or running, but I was on an extreme emotional high. Every once in a while I just couldn’t help laughing at the ridiculousness of what I was doing and experiencing, and one time I was so happy I started crying a little. I guess what got me so worked up about this whole scenario was the fact that this crazy energy I had on that special day, it didn’t feel like my own… it felt more like something was pushing me forward – not involuntarily, but independently of my own body. Maybe the events of the past few days, at Agawa and making it to Wawa, and this day of incredible energy – maybe it had all conspired to restore, at least a little bit, some faith. Not necessarily faith in “God” or in the literal reality of thunderbirds or a fabulous underwater panther or what have you, but faith that everything is going to be OK; faith that even when you’re having some dark and dreary times, they might suddenly change. Or maybe just an ongoing acknowledgment and increasing awareness that everything in life is change – that this amazing energy might not be here tomorrow, but it is right now, and that’s cool.

Well, you can bet it wasn’t there the next day, and that was fine. I got to White River at 11 pm that night, just as it got dark, and my time for the 90k (the longest run of my life) was exactly 9 hours. I stayed at Brian’s other cabin in White River for a total of three days, perhaps for no other reason than because I could, and I felt like it. Maybe I was still riding that wave of doing whatever I want, so I hung out there and watched movies and spent time with Jen and the Taylor kids (who came up for the weekend). I’ve never done anything like that since then in all this past month, and I’m still three days behind schedule because of this whole episode: the epic run and the three-day vacation. No regrets whatsoever. It was entirely worth it.

Hanging out in White River. The giant thermometer commemorates the lowest recorded temperature in Canada, but according to Jen (whose grandfather was town weather guy at that time), the extreme measurement might have been due to a cracked thermometer. White River is also where Winnie the Pooh (actual bear who inspired the stories) came from.

That 90k run wasn’t just an awesome experience, it was a huge confidence booster, and I feel that it kind of took me to a new level, both as a person and an athlete. I’ve been a guy who runs long distances for a few years, but I’m pretty sure that, after this run, I’m in some different kind of category. Like, not to toot my own horn or something, but just having a day like that out of the blue when you’re already running crazy mileage is pretty hardcore, and it made me realize that there are a lot of cool races out there that I could definitely be doing, once I finish this cross-country run. Yeah, I want to run the Canadian Death Race, and I don’t think it would be too much of a stretch at my present level of fitness. Yeah, someday, even if it’s five years from now, I suspect I’ll eventually run Badwater, because I caught that bug years ago when I first ever heard about it. I wasn’t anywhere close to that level then, and maybe I’m not there yet, but I’m getting to this point where it’s becoming obvious that someday I will be there. When I started running, I couldn’t handle two miles on a treadmill, and now I routinely have 45-mile days with 20-30 miles on adjacent days. I’m pretty sure the sky’s the limit.

Kind strangers in big black trucks.

I’ve really experienced so many small kindnesses on the road that it would probably be boring for you to read if I listed them all, although they’ve certainly impacted me personally and I will remember them. That said, I wanted to share a couple anecdotes about people who literally pulled over on the highway to offer me help.

In Ontario, everybody who’s anybody seems to drive a big black truck, probably a Ford F-150 or a GMC Sierra, although other makes pass. And of course Brian’s truck was red, so black isn’t a rule, but it’s a certain thing out there. At first I was intimidated by all these big black trucks, and I think for some of those drivers, the intimidation factor is desirable. They weren’t always the most considerate drivers, and often drove pretty fast, especially around Sudbury. So, I was a little apprehensive when I was heading north just out of Sault, and saw this big shiny black truck pull over to the side of the road, and a guy getting out. I kept on running and just said hi and smiled as I started to go by him, because he hadn’t waved me down or anything (though I had a feeling he might have stopped for me). But then he smiled back and called out “Hey! Slow down for a minute! I just want to know what you’re doing!” This guy, Justin, can’t have been much older than me – just a really friendly guy, driving up to his cabin with his girlfriend. The thing is, he had seen me three times now, hundreds of kilometers apart! First, he’d passed me in Sudbury. Later, he saw me again at Elliot Lake, and finally now we were north of Sault Ste. Marie! So I told a bit of my story and explained as well as I could what it was all about, and linked him to my blog. This guy pulls out $50 cash from his pocket and just hands it to me. I was really dumbstruck, and for a moment didn’t even know how to respond. The truth is, it was a big help. But maybe even more than the cash, it was just this guy’s no-barriers kind of friendliness that cheered me up a great deal – I love it when people see what I’m doing, and don’t feel like I must be a really different kind of person from them. We exchanged contact info and there was a possibility of my stopping in at their cabin between Wawa and White River, but the cell reception was out and it didn’t happen. Maybe it’s fate, again, since that would have broken up the most epic run of my life, but at the same time it’s kind of too bad.

When I was on the road from Nipigon to Thunder Bay and another big black pickup truck passed me, swerved around and came right back at me, pulling up alongside me in the other lane going the wrong way (on the Trans-Canada Highway, remember?), I initially was saying to myself “No way, Justin can’t possibly be all the way out here and passing me again!?” But it turned out to be this really good-humored, heavyset native guy named John, in a bandana and aviator shades. John passed me the only drink he had in his truck, a diet pepsi – not something I’d usually drink, but the gesture was so incredible, and the fulfillment of the  “passing motorist hands me a cold beverage fantasy” so incredible, that of course I was totally amazed. “I’m not religious and I don’t believe in God, but my thing is ‘The Big Guy,'” said John. “Well, I hope the Big Guy looks after you.”

The Big Guy. Thunderbirds & underwater panthers. Pheasants? Loquebantur variis linguis apostoli.

Well, there are so many interesting bits and pieces and things that have happened. I’m trying to go more or less chronologically here, and I’ve pretty much covered things up until Thunder Bay. Check in soon for that and beyond, because it’s really been just as eventful.

Leona Woodmass thinks I need to name the Chariot. Any suggestions?

Thought it was pretty cool the first time I entered “unsurveyed territory.”

North Bay to Sault, and finding myself near the end of Chapter 1 here.

•May 25, 2012 • 3 Comments

Whew, pardon me if I’m a little fuzzy on the details this far back… it’s been forever since I got to use a computer! I do take some notes, but it’s been tough getting all this together.

May 13: “waterfront properties” / nonexistent downtowns

The Dinner Bell Motel & Restaurant was described as “the only place in town” by a friendly middle-aged couple I met when I was checking in the night before. It seemed likely true the next morning, when I woke up and found their diner full of Bonfield people having Mother’s Day brunch there. In fact, the same couple was there again (despite living nearby – they weren’t staying at the motel), and kindly bought me my breakfast!

It was a beautiful day, hot and sunny, although the shoulder was pretty sandy and there was a lot of traffic to North Bay. I arrived in the afternoon, not sure what to expect, and North Bay turned out to be another interesting highway-strip situation. The main drag, Lakeshore Drive, just followed the contours of Lake Nipissing for miles, completely depriving the landscape of any possible beauty or use as a public recreation area. It seems like there’s this weird irony of land use: waterfront property is desirable because it theoretically increases commercial value, but then it destroys the potential that land had to provide the people who actually live there with some sort of aesthetic or recreational satisfaction. I find that a little sad.

But at first I was in downtown North Bay, which, like “downtown Pembroke,” was a bit of a joke. I really got a weird vibe there: it seemed shady and not too friendly. However, that wasn’t the case when I stopped for lunch at Greco’s pizza. Had an awesome broccoli/spinach pizza all to myself with two pints of Steam Whistle pilsner and a piece of cake, and I think the waitress deliberately undercharged me because I just ordered so much food. I didn’t realize I was going to be eating another meal only an hour or two later when I arrived at Lindsay Furlong’s house (mother of my friend Byrne, from the McGill English dep’t): when I made it there, we had cheeseburgers and corn on the cob. But the truth is, it’s pretty much impossible for me to overeat. I had, strangely, just missed Byrne by a couple of hours, since she’d been up in North Bay from Toronto for Mother’s Day – too bad. I’m afraid I spent most of that evening concocting my last gigantic blog post, though I left this day out.

Good meal at Greco’s, North Bay.

May 14: making new friends chez Jean-Guy Rubberboots / practical applications of running

Yet another hot and sunny day on the road, but not a very long run to Sturgeon Falls. I was sustained on the road by this recurring dream-image: a shaded terrace where I might be served inexpensive but very cold lager while eating onion rings. This is usually an unrealistic expectation, and I know it, but I somehow got lucky today, spotting this pub called “Jean-Guy Rubberboots” right off the highway, complete with fenced-in shaded terrace, populated pretty much exclusively by old men speaking a mixture of English and really weird French. And their house draft lager was something like $3.50 a pint. So I was relaxing here for a while, getting refreshed and reading Murakami again (“Pinball, 1973”) on my kindle, when eventually I got sucked into a conversation with some of these characters: namely, Bill, Tim, and “The Squirrel.” “The Squirrel” went on and on about his previous employment as a safecracker, including unlikely stories of scaling four-storey buildings and cracking 24 safes without ever being caught. Bill was more plausible, a really gregarious guy retired from naval work, with a few stories to tell about hitchhiking across Canada in the late 60s. When I was first meeting these guys, Tim kept the most quiet of the three, but I would later come to know him the best, as he volunteered a place for me to sleep that night.

I got pretty lucky meeting a guy like Tim at a random pub – he was truly kind, offering to take me home for the night and even feed me dinner (fried chicken & poutine). Tim lived with his wife and their two tiny dogs (Sandy [Pomeranian] and Rusty [intact and highly energetic male Lhasa Apso]) in this really nice house pretty close to Jean-Guy’s, a renovation he’d done entirely on his own over the past couple decades. He’d had a pretty radical/experimental gastric bypass surgery a couple years before, which means he’s currently living semi-retired, but also several hundred pounds lighter and a lot healthier than before. I’m happy for him to have made such a dramatic recovery and hope he never gets complacent about his newfound good health.

Tim & his wife standing on the deck which he built for his house in Sturgeon Falls.

One funny incident to relate. Around dinnertime, I opened the door to go out for a minute, and Rusty the Lhasa Apso ran outside. And didn’t stop running. It pretty much looked like he was just bolting for as far away as he could get, inexplicably, so I figured, well, if anybody around here is going to catch this guy it better be me. Actually I was sort of panicking, because, like, what if I lost the favorite little dog of this nice guy who gave me a place to sleep? So, barefoot and with several developing blisters, I just went for it. I gave chase for a few blocks, scooped the little bugger up and carried him all the way back home. It just goes to show… sure, you run 40 or 50 kilometers, but it’s no good if you don’t leave that last little bit in the tank. You never know when you might need it! And, the ability to run can be useful!

We went back to Jean-Guy Rubberboots after dinner. I said I really didn’t want to be up late that night, but it was obviously Tim’s scene / social circle, and besides, I really liked the place, so I was game. Tim and Rick (the Franco-Ontarien barkeep) are probably the best pool players I’ve ever seen in action. Gosh, this was the kind of all-around great night that kind of resists being summarized (and I’m on a time limit here). Obviously I’m pretty solitary on this run, spending huge amounts of time alone with my thoughts, doing weird things that set me apart from other human beings – therefore, it’s enormously refreshing to actually engage with other people, especially in a totally unexpected/uncharacteristic kind of social situation, like drinking with a bunch of retired guys in Sturgeon Falls.

Jean-Guy Rubberboots’ pub in downtown Sturgeon Falls.

Spare room for a lone wolf at Tim’s place.

May 15: new shoes / giant hogweed / first bear sighting

This was at least the third hot sunny day in a row. The weather around here has really seemed to be either “on” or “off”, and when it’s “off,” it’s really cold! Like, when it’s hot and sunny, I find the temperature hovers around 25 C all day long, but if it’s overcast and cool, it can be around 10, tops. So another hot one, and with my blisters I wasn’t feeling too great. After a few kilometers of sluggish walking to “warm up,” I decided maybe my shoes were the problem, because they were feeling a bit tight. Switching to my next-largest shoes, Brooks Pureflow in size 12.5, I felt WAY better, and the feeling has lasted for quite some time now. I worry that, although the size 12s I started in felt good at the beginning, I may not be able to go back to them until after Vancouver, and if that’s the case then they’re dead weight with me. Whatever. The point is, my feet felt GREAT after that switch, and it enabled me to start running longer intervals. That day I started doing 10 or 11k intervals with just a 2 or 3k walk break, and I’ve stuck to that since then. Now I try to do 12k runs with walk breaks or just all-out rest breaks in an en-route town, so I can maximize the distance that I actually run.

Stopping for refreshment in Warren, I got laughed at asking if there was a supermarket nearby: “In Warren!? The nearest grocery store is in Sudbury!” I don’t get it, because that just can’t possibly be true, but I know this person wasn’t trying to be unfriendly. And where do people get their food around here anyway? You can get live bait 24 hours a day every few kilometers, but fruits and vegetables are virtually impossible to find? Sudbury was like 50-60 km away from that town. Whatever. So I stopped at the diner and took the recommendation proffered to me by the cook’s sassy daughter (“Try the pogos, they’re awesome”), also downing some “Amazing Grass” dissolved in a bottle of lemonade. Amazing Grass, like Greens+, is a powder-form green superfood concentrate, so I try to take a scoop of that every day. Sometimes it feels like it’s all I can do to offset the inevitable diet changes I’ve been going through… way less fruits & veggies, because I just need all the calories I can get. I’m eating a lot of nuts and dried fruit, but also a lot of poutine, root beer floats, gummy worms, etc.

Around 7 pm, there were storm clouds coming out on the horizon, and I passed a picnic area with no signs saying explicitly that I couldn’t camp there, so I was considering pitching the tent (in spite of the warning signs about giant hogweed and other poisonous plants in the area). I saw this guy out on his porch across the road from the picnic area, so I went over to ask him if he thought it was more or less legal to camp there – just as much to ensure that my de facto neighbor wouldn’t call the cops on me as to ensure that the cops themselves wouldn’t take issue. He didn’t think it would be a problem, so I went back across the road to set up camp. As soon as I was across, he yelled “Hey!” and motioned for me to come back.

You could do worse than camping across the highway from here, but can you spot the bear?

Lee was one of those guys you could tell at a glance was into old-school metal. I’m not really even sure how, it was just sort of stamped into him. A kind of gaunt backcountry Ontarian rocker dude covered in paint (he paints houses for a living). Lee wanted to offer me a place to sleep for the night, in a trailer in his yard that belonged to a buddy of his living out in Alberta. I wouldn’t have turned it down even if there weren’t storm clouds, giant hogweed, and bears across the road! He opened it up, and obviously nobody had been inside in a while. For one thing, it was filled with stereo equipment, which it turns out was extra, second-best stuff Lee didn’t need in the house anymore. I had to ask him what kind of music he was into, and he responded with the ubiquitous, friendly, yet always differently-shaded “everything!” When Jessie (his seriously cute bespectacled 8 or 9 year-old daughter) was born, he “played a lot of Mozart” in the house in deference to the popular wisdom that it’ll make your kid smarter, but he also mentioned Black Label Society, Motorhead, Judas Priest, etc. So we cleaned up this messy trailer a bit and made a little space for me to sleep. Lee found a partially-packed bowl of pot in the midst of this detritus and said, “Not sure where this came from. Do you smoke?” (“Nope, not really” was my response, parents.)  Later, as I was relaxing in the trailer and reading a little before the lights went out, Lee came out to smoke a cigarette and knocked on the door of the trailer with a big cup filled with ice and a can of Pepsi, just a spontaneous nice gesture. We hung out talking for a while and he casually pointed out a bear across the road: “Oh, look, she’s always up there with her cubs this time of night.” This was the first time I’d ever seen a bear in the wild! And for him it was just commonplace. “Oh, we get moose in the yard!” Sadly, I didn’t see one, but you can’t have everything… sometimes a cold Pepsi, some bear neighbors, and your own dilapidated decades-old trailer for the night is more than enough. I didn’t even mention their adorable sharpei. Everybody keeps telling me that the further west I go, people will just keep getting nicer and nicer. It could be that I’m also opening up more to the people I meet on the road – losing a bit of my introverted, impossibly different ego-baggage, and letting myself embrace these random situations I’m getting into. Are people getting nicer as I go west, or am I getting nicer as I go west? Moot point / hopefully both.

Trailer in Lee’s yard, my suite for the night.

This feels like the Ritz when you thought you were going to have to get out a tent in the impending thunderstorm.

I had “Parting Friends” (Sacred Harp) stuck in my head all day, and was playing around with some canonic possibilities as I ran. I’m travelin’ through the wilderness.

May 16: rocking out / chipotle banana ketchup

The terrain changed visibly on the run into Sudbury. Rocks started sticking out of the grass, and it just got rockier. Sudbury is a rock town, a nickel mine. Lee said he generally partied in Coniston, along the 17 into Sudbury, and I tried to figure out where exactly this partying would happen as I ate at the Subway in Wahnapitae. But I liked the feeling of the area, it had a realness to it that I’m sure comes from having a mining town in the middle of nowhere – not a lot is going to change. Sudbury was built on top of a mine, and the mine is in a giant crater formed a long time ago, but the topography is all uneven, with rocks sticking out every which way. I liked it. The railroad goes right through the middle of town and there’s a whole bunch of ugly rusty tracks splitting one side from the other.

At rush hour, as I was coming into Sudbury on the 55, I passed literally hundreds of cars stalled in traffic that didn’t even look like it was anything too out of the ordinary. At the time I didn’t really notice, but apparently being a cyclist in Sudbury is enough to get you dirty looks and even spat on, and plenty of close scrapes in terms of accidents. It’s really that out of the ordinary, I’m told. At least with the chariot, when people see me, it is not as an expression of some cultural trend that they like or dislike… the good and the bad thing about it is I just appear to be that one crazy guy, which perhaps makes me more tolerated in a situation like this. Whatever the case, it was cool passing all those cars.

Ben Flight hooked me up with a host in Sudbury, his friend Chelsea who I may or may not have met briefly once before in Montreal. She’s part of the McGill Law crowd that includes Ben, Meara, Krista, etc. This was yet another case of my staying with a random connection / friend-of-a-friend who gave me the impression that we should have already been friends. Chelsea was such a warm and welcoming person to stay with, and all her roommates, too. She and I and her roommate Frank went out to a kind of out-of-place watering hole called the Happy Buddha which could have been transplanted from the Montreal Plateau – incredible beer menu, chipotle banana ketchup with your fries, you know. Wellington Imperial Stout is probably the best beer I’ve had since leaving Montreal.

May 17: longing for a green highway

This morning I slept in good and late, then did something I’d been putting off for a while: I wanted to put in some serious time researching trail alternatives to the Trans-Canadian Highway. Where are they available, and are they actually viable? The Trans-Canada Trail (tctrail.ca) is an amazing project, but after looking into it pretty thoroughly, I can’t say it provides the kind of alternative that I could use. The thing is, these trails aren’t designed as a utilitarian passage from point A to point B, east-to-west: they’re more for recreational use, so they meander all over the place. They’re also, generally speaking, hilly and rocky. I’ve used bits and pieces of the Trans-Canada Trail when I see them popping up alongside the highway, but I almost always regret having done so. If I didn’t have the very significant encumbrance of the chariot to worry about, it would be different: those wheels get bogged down in sandy gravel surfaces, although I personally don’t mind that surface as far as running goes. All the same, that rules out huge portions of the trail for a trans-Canada run (even if you didn’t have a chariot, you’d presumably have a vehicular support crew – if you were going to do the tctrail the whole way, I guess that would have to be ATVs!) I think in the future, a cross-country run on the tctrail network will be possible – gaps will be filled in, certain parts will become paved, and, ultimately, I’m still pulling for the total coast-to-coast conversion of the Canadian Pacific Railroad into paved bicycle paths. That would be incredible, and would essentially serve the purpose of a “green highway.”

CPR trains are an increasingly rare and anachronistic sight. What are they carrying, anyway?

As a little digression, I really need to mention the OFSC, the volunteer group that organizes snowmobile trails across Ontario. The trans-Ontario Provincial Touring Trail is an extremely impressive/ambitious venture, and I only wish there was such a thing for cyclists. There’s basically this network of trails all over Ontario – and not just north/south and east/west, but a complex network joining diverse parts of the province like roads. Sure, they’re not all in amazing condition, but many are good enough that for a trail runner unencumbered by gear, they’d do fine. The infrastructure impressed me and got me wondering: why don’t cyclists and runners have a thing like this? There are probably more of us than there are snowmobile enthusiasts. But owning a snowmobile – or a car! – is such a big financial investment that maybe people feel they should take it more seriously and invest in a network of routes exclusively for it. Imagine if Canadian cyclists pooled their resources and energy in a similar way, to work on a project like that. I guess the 20 km hub trail here in Sault Ste. Marie is a good example of that in action, but it is rare.

But for now, anybody who wants to run or bike across Canada has got to suck it up and deal with the Trans-Canadian Highway. This does have its benefits, because you’re following a path that has relevance to a huge number of Canadians’ lives; when you follow the highway, you’re getting to know Canada as the majority of its citizens know it. Furthermore, the road is generally in decent condition and doesn’t have too many huge or steep ups and downs. It’s just a really funny feeling to be using it to do something it was never intended for, and to see car culture through an outsider’s perspective. I never thought I would spend so much time thinking about green space, land usage, and car culture on this trip, but it’s proven kind of inevitable.

I only hit the road to Nairn at 1:30 in the afternoon, and it was another hot one. I took the 55 out of town, rather than the Trans-Canadian Highway, but what I didn’t know was that the TCH had become a parkway since I was last on it (divided by a median), so it actually wouldn’t have been legal for me on there. I found this out when I got sick of the 55 and tried to switch to the 17 at some point: a costly detour, when I saw the no cycling sign and had to turn around. The 55 was congested and unpleasant, and ran parallel to a portion of the Trans-Canada Trail that was extremely sandy/dusty, so I really couldn’t use it. After trying to do so for a while, anyway, I got so hot and tired out that I had to stop for a ginger ale and some ice cream. I’m afraid I’ve begun to find soda and ice cream really potent fuels for running, and they always get me going. It’s weird, the sugar rush I can get from them is far more effective than natural sugars (fruits, fruit juices, etc.)

As it was getting dark, I started looking for a little nest off the TCH. Yet again, I was tipped off by a trail that looked neglected, with a lot of weeds and small trees growing out of it. Climbing this hill with the chariot was a little ungainly (reminded me of the opening scene of Herzog’s “Aguirre,” or perhaps the rope bridge truck-driving scene in “Sorcerer”), but at the top I found a clearing that looked pretty abandoned. Pitched the tent, finished “Pinball, 1973,” started “Norwegian Wood,” lights out.

May 18: experiencing impermanence / campground as alternate-reality suburb

Cold and cloudy, and not an easy hike to Espanola. The road was very high-traffic today because of the forthcoming long weekend, when a lot of Canadians seem to have a tradition of getting out and going camping somewhere a couple hours away from where they live. Seeing all these RVs passing me, I couldn’t help thinking a bit about this. The first time I went camping, the night after I left Deep River, I was really shocked at the appearance of the campground. Mine was the only tent, but there were about 50 RVs and mobile homes parked in neat rectangular lots in orderly rows. The appearance of the whole campground was, frankly, a lot like a suburb. So I chewed on that irony for a while, pondering why it would be desirable to move from one suburb to another. The thing is, most of the people in this area don’t live in a suburb: they live in beautiful rural locations, usually a cleared area of coniferous forest not far from a lake. Then they pack up and go vacation in a different coniferous forest near a lake. It struck me that perhaps, whereas I had previously thought people went camping to escape the boxed-in suburban society in which they usually live, maybe around here they go camping to be in closer proximity to other people? I mean, everybody seems to live on these vast pieces of land with “no trespassing signs” stretching for miles, so maybe they don’t see their neighbors very often. Not the case when you’re parked a stone’s throw from another RV in another cute rectangular lot. Interesting stuff.

But back to my journey. The impression that stuck out from my run on this day was that I might actually be starting to process impermanence every day on an experiential level, which was one of my reasons for taking this whole trip. Conditions on the road changed a lot that day: precip / no precip, cloud cover / sun, condition of shoulder, hilliness, fluctuations in density of traffic. It was one of those days where you can’t escape the basic truth that everything is just arising and passing, so you better not get too attached. Things like this, you can say them to yourself as often as you like, but unless you’re experiencing them firsthand, it’s not going to stick and it won’t have an impact on the attitude with which you approach everyday life.

All the same, I just couldn’t get warm and dry, all day, and I couldn’t imagine camping again (and didn’t know where to once I got to Espanola), so I did end up in a motel again. Espanola’s Clear Lake Inn, up on a hill and a little bit out of town, was by far the nicest yet, and only $50. This really meticulous 1960s décor, but actually really tasteful, and comfortable. Cool place.

Clear Lake Inn, Espanola = tasteful 60s aesthetic.

May 19: public land, only $40 a night to camp on it!

Despite another hot and sunny day, I woke up feeling well-rested and ready to really run. I applied sunscreen pretty copiously, went shirtless, and ran a totally uninterrupted 25k to Massey. Getting in such a long, uninterrupted run felt GREAT, and I’m sure a lot of it had to do with how much more comfortable it is to run without a shirt. Of course, you will invariably encounter some attitude when you do what feels best, like the young lad who yelled at me as I passed through Webbwood: “Hey, mister! I think you lost your shirt!” Seriously? Young people have such cheek these days. So I stopped for five seconds and said, “You try running from Montreal to Vancouver in the summer, and keep your shirt on the whole way.” I mean, give me a break! Why are people so uncomfortable with even partial nudity like that? On the other hand, a lot of bikers on the highway waved or nodded at me as they saw me running by shirtless, maybe just because of how hardcore I looked. In general, on the highway, it was around this time, though not just this day, that I started getting a lot more casual recognition from passing motorists of all stripes. Their reactions have stopped being like, “what the hell is that crazy man doing?” to “hey, look at that guy running across Canada.” I’m guessing that it’s because I’m now in land where, if a guy is running on the highway, it’s pretty obvious he’s coming from a long ways away. I doubt these people all saw the article in the Cobden Sun. Even I haven’t!

When I arrived in Massey, my first priority was to get out of the sun and get something cold and refreshing to drink, preferably a beer. A local directed me to the local Legion Hall, which was certainly a bastion of realness. In the basement there were only two people, a big guy with a moustache named Wes, and his wife, who was sitting around doing crosswords. I had a beer, talked with them a bit, and read a lot of “Norwegian Wood.” (Gosh, I’m really absorbed in Murakami lately.) Eventually, they ordered a pizza, and offered me some. I was pleasantly surprised to encounter not just decent, but excellent pizza in a tiny town in Ontario. And again, excellent people as well. Wes told me I should check out Chutes Provincial Park, just up the road, for camping purposes, and I did. He told me, things I’d read had told me, and it generally made sense that camping in a provincial park should be free and legal. However, when I got there I saw they were expecting $37.50 or $42.50 a night, depending on whether you use electricity or not. Outrageous! So I asked a ranger I saw walking around, just to clarify that that’s what it would cost for one guy with a tiny tent, and she confirmed that yes, officially, that’s the deal. But when I explained what I was doing and asked if there was any way I could possibly camp without paying so much, just for the night, she told me to get back into this blocked-off section of the campground, pick one of the plots in the back, and try to get out as early as possible in the morning. And that’s just what I did… thank you, Officer Steinke. Still, it was a disappointment to have that feeling of being a transgressor, in a situation where I really didn’t think I should be feeling that burden.

Camping illegally, but in a semi-officially-sanctioned way, in Chutes Provincial Park, Massey.

May 20: procession of wizards / a cooling stream at hand / private bog suite

This was a day for which I’d been storing up my energy, for a few days in advance. The way to Blind River was listed in my itinerary as 78 km, but turned out to be only 70. Regardless, I’d like to see you run 70 km on the hottest and sunniest day yet, with temperatures easily in the low 30s. I’m glad I got an early start, but even at 8 am the sun was really beating down on me. Fortunately, I was feeling pretty high-energy, and I ran the whole way from Massey to the town of Spanish (only the first part).

I had an interesting encounter on the road to Spanish. This guy passed me on a bicycle, but it wasn’t just any guy, nor was it any old bicycle. It was a guy who looked about my age, wearing a dress shirt with suspenders and a fedora hat (remember how I said this was a really hot day?), riding a recumbent bicycle. And this at a time when virtually no one else was on the highway. I caught up with him and said hi, and asked him where he was off to, thinking he was some sort of rural steampunk wizard/oddball. It didn’t occur to me until later, when I saw the first horse-drawn carriages, that maybe I was in Amish country, but this guy didn’t exactly help me out with his vague comments. He was really friendly, but just said he was going “just over there”, whatever that meant. I think he was on his way to church, actually, and ditto the horse-drawn carriages I saw later. But before I realized it was Sunday morning, I had no clue what I’d stumbled into and couldn’t help but think of J.K. Rowling’s descriptions of wizards trying to fit into the muggle world, or just appreciating the kind of steampunk-looking aesthetic these people had going on. When I caught up with that guy and asked him questions, I assumed there was nothing politically-incorrect about that, because it was one human-powered weirdo on the highway to another, just shooting the breeze, comparing notes. In retrospect I felt bad, because what I thought was a pointedly unusual individual may have been just an exponent of a whole culture, and I wouldn’t want to draw attention to that and make him feel out of place if he wasn’t trying to in the first place. It’s possible I was the only weirdo out there. But then again, perhaps he was a little different – most of the Amish folks were in horse-drawn carriages, and I have some respect for a guy who declines to exploit another animal in favor of bicycling in his suspenders.

Unique meeting of form & function.

Horses, cars – in the 21st century, what’s the difference? You’re either pulling your own weight or you’re making somebody else do the work.

In Spanish, I refreshed myself with a milkshake, a “Big Turk” bar, a coke, amazing grass, and – a first for me, just something I wanted to try – one of those “5-Hour Energy” things. How’s that for a breakfast of champions?

At first it worked pretty well, and I think I ran for another hour after Spanish before I had to take my first walk break of the day. The heat was really getting to me, and I pulled over to the side of the road to dry off and sit in the shade for a couple minutes. About an hour later, I came to a beautiful picnic area on the Serpent River, and fulfilled one of the sub-fantasies of my whole running-across-Canada dream. In the middle of the day, I stripped down to my shorts and just jumped right in. Honestly, it was on par with the best and most memorable sensory experiences of my entire life. The water was so cold and clear, and just for my feet to be out of shoes was an incredible feeling. After some hesitation, I dove the whole way in and immersed my whole body. I lingered at the Serpent River for quite some time, getting wet and then enjoying the hot sun. A family that had passed me driving on the highway showed up and recognized me, and we talked for a while. They were coming from Ottawa, and their kids actually liked it better out near Serpent River than they did in Ottawa.

Serpent River swim break. I feel like I haven’t lost much weight so far, and that’s great!

After Serpent River, it was a long, slow road to my final destination. Even at the end of the day, I was a few kilometers short of Blind River, but I did find an amazing and possibly even legal campsite at Little Lake Bog. This was a public nature trail – totally deserted, though – with no signs that said anything about the legality of camping or whatever. I followed it all the way to its end, where there was a nice wooden deck looking out over the eponymous little lake. Right next to this was a large, soft, flat patch of moss upon which I pitched my tent for a pretty luxurious sleeping experience. I watched the sun set over the lake on my private deck, settled down on the moss, and finished “Norwegian Wood,” a really great read. It had been a long day.

Perfect campsite at Little Lake Bog, complete with private deck.

May 21: various time warps

I did pay the price for spending that kind of energy in that kind of heat. From Blind River to Iron Bridge – a pretty short leg of the journey, really – I felt very sluggish and tired. Not a lot to report from that run/walk, although I did see some cool old abandoned houses along the highway. I thought it was neat that there was no fence, and although some placards had been posted with information about the houses as heritage sites, there were no dire warnings about trespassing, etc. Obvious liability issues, but left to common sense, and the desire of a passerby to check the places out. I did go into the Daigle House just to have a look.

I thought about sleeping in this place, but I was still a few kilometres short of Iron Bridge and didn’t want to fall behind on an easy day.

In Iron Bridge, I was beat. Just didn’t know what to do with myself, and was tired and hungry as hell. I was told there was a really cheap motel in town, so I asked around, and sure enough, this place that looked like it had been in a time warp from 45 years ago was charging only $45 a night, tax included. Imagine my surprise when the guy who owned the place, a really gregarious middle-aged guy who seemed thrilled to see me, told me I was their first ever customer. It turns out they’d just purchased the motel and were trying to re-make it into a viable business. Honestly, it was pretty rough around the edges, but the time-warp style was kind of cool for a night.

I don’t think this is stylistically on the same level as the also-retro Clear Lake Inn in Espanola. But the price was right. They put me in #6. I am not a number, I am a free man.

Ditto my dinner at 3 Aces Chinese & Canadian Food. This place has been in business as a Chinese restaurant for over 60 years, in Iron Bridge! That’s incredible! This is a town of 900 people in the middle of nowhere. So I had pork egg foo young and a banana split… mmm. (Though I will say the latter was better than the former.)

May 22: the proverbial can of whoopass is opened

Not a bad day. I did walk the first 15 km (rather than the first 10, which would be normal), but after stopping for ice cream and an energy drink, I realized maybe all I needed was some calories, and, more specifically, some sugar. Amused by the fact that there actually is an energy drink called “Whoopass,” I opened a can of it, both literally and metaphorically, and then I was really flying to Thessalon. I have to say, I think it was more the sugar and the cold refreshment of the drink than any of its B-vitamin complexes and so forth, but whatever it was, I’m grateful for that second wind (or first wind?) And it stuck, even after Thessalon, where I took a break for an hour or two and used a computer in the library. But perhaps the next chunk of running, from Thessalon to Bruce Mines, was fueled more by the root beer float and soft pretzel I had there.

Breaking open a can of whoopass.

Bruce Mines was one of the nicest small towns I’ve stayed in for the whole trip. It’s hard to say what about it won me over so much, but besides just being really cute, it had a public campground owned by the town. It was an honor system to pay their modest fees ($12/night for tenting), and I actually did that, maybe because I was so charmed by their offering that to passersby. If I had more money, maybe I would have checked out the tavern at the “Bavarian Inn” in town, but I was broke and beat, so it was raisins, bread & peanut butter, a nip of whisky from the flask, and Murakami for me before drifting off to sleep.

May 23: etudes in physiological blackjack / deciduous interlude

Every once in a while, you have to have one of those bad days by which all other bad days are measured. A day so low-energy, and so dismal, that it sets the standard. Today was that day for me, despite all my best efforts. I think that, really, my exhaustion had become cumulative, ever since that big hot day of running to Blind River, and it was starting to show. The weather was – you guessed it – very hot and sunny, and I tried to skip the morning doldrums by hanging out in Bruce Mines until the afternoon and loading up on lots of calories and sugar. My strategy was a disaster. At least I got some grocery shopping done and a little computer time at the library, but when I left at 1:30 in the afternoon I still felt like I’d just gotten up. Worse still, I decided it would be nice to take the back roads to Echo Bay, because they’d have less traffic (both routes were 40 km).

It was true that there was less traffic on the back roads, but they were a disaster. Huge hills, constantly going up and down, and the surface of the road was often a very sandy/dusty gravel one. If a car ever did pass by, I’d hide my face in my arm to avoid the dust, and the surface and the topography combined with my pushing the chariot meant that I was really slowed down considerably. Frankly, I never felt up to running, the entire day. The best I could do was walk doggedly forward, pushing the chariot up monster hills and holding it back as I descended them (except for the one time I deliberately let it go on its own downhill to catch it at the bottom – I didn’t aim well enough to consider its tendency to lean right, and it crashed off into the ditch and into a tree. Fortunately, no damage.) It went on like this all day, and I only got to Echo Bay around 9 pm. It was ridiculously slow going.

To make matters worse, when I finally found a campground, past Echo Bay on the 17b towards Sault, the security guy wasn’t there and I had to deal with the conundrum of whether to just set up camp without checking in (like several passersby encouraged me to do) or to call the owner, who had posted his cell number on the door. Being the nice guy that I am, I called him… but he was flaky, wanted $20, and couldn’t accept payment by credit or debit cards. Thus, I actually couldn’t pay him. What a dumb situation to be in! I was going to be gone from this place in about eight hours, and I was being asked for $20 to erect my glorified sleeping bag of a tent on an infinitesimally small piece of land for the small portion of time before the sun rose? Meanwhile, I have to call this flaky-ass campground owner at my expense, using roaming minutes on my cell (which has bad reception here)? So I told him, yeah, whatever you say, see you in the morning and we’ll settle up then. As I set up my tent by headlamp, my neighbors at the campground told me I should just bounce in the morning.

One cool thing about this day: the amount of deciduous forest through which I passed. Ever since I was really little, I’ve had a thing for nice green deciduous forestland. When I was a little kid I wanted to be a “forest man,” similar to Robin Hood, and would often examine forests, considering them as potential living spaces for my future, solitary, sustainable forest man life. I saw a lot of really beautiful forests today that looked pretty different from the dark pine stuff I’d been passing through for weeks. Nice terrain, a deciduous interlude.

May 24: paranoid & on the run from Ojibwa vengeance / unbelievable breakfast

I woke up at 6:20, not even by design so much as by feeling crappy. I packed everything up quickly and quietly, and I took the advice virtually everyone had given me and got the hell out of there. This was by far the most illegal bivouac to date, because it was so explicitly and knowingly against the wishes of the landowner. I felt terrible, but what are you going to do, when everybody is making it so hard to camp legally? So after this horrible low-energy day, hardly any recovery food and a subpar sleep, I found myself running immediately after rolling out of bed – not because I felt great, but because I wanted to get the hell out of the Garden River first nation area before some Ojibwa vengeance got me. I knew I was being paranoid and the owner of the campground probably didn’t even care, but I was feeling uneasy.

As if I wasn’t aware.

Everything changed when I pulled over some 10k later for breakfast at a roadside establishment called “Chi-Pete’s” (say it out loud). I was expecting your regular roadside diner thing, but the moment I entered I could tell the place was special. For one thing, it looked brand spanking new, and I was later informed that it was – the grand opening had been that weekend. Pete was a soft-spoken but amiable guy from Sault (non-native) who lived on the reservation and had just started up his own little restaurant here. I ordered the biggest breakfast on the menu, and, looking back, I think I’d have to say it was, hands-down, the best breakfast of my life. The toast was his own homemade brown bread, slathered with butter. Three eggs done to perfection (over-medium). Three pieces of fried ham that made me feel like I actually like ham. The homemade Italian sausage patty must have been some kind of family recipe, so incredibly flavorful and possessed of a nice spicy kick. Add some tasty mashbrowns, and the sum of it all is a really large and really excellent breakfast. I tipped generously and reflected on how, for $11, I’d been given something ten times more valuable, and even more personal, than the privilege of putting up my tent on some crappy corner of a guy’s vast campground.

After that, it was smooth sailing into the Sault, and I was pretty much already there. I have a lot to say about my stay in Sault, and I want to give a general update about how I’m doing physically, and the long road ahead through the wilderness, but I can’t do all that right now.

“naturally gifted”