Road Trip 2019, Part 1, Chapter 3: on to Canada

Pretty River, Collingwood, Ontario

Day 15: time to move on.  We have the room for another day, but it’s an 18-hour drive to our next destination, so we check out and head toward Jackson, my old home town, for coffee.  The coffee shop on Main is supposed to open at 7:00, but it’s 7:20 and there are no lights on inside, so we continue to the Interstate and point the truck east.

This part of the country was buried under the Des Moines Lobe of the expanded polar ice cap during the last Ice Age,  flattened so the curve of the earth is distorted, making the eastern horizon farther away than it should be.  The rich farmland, the result of millennia of grassland transforming the glacial till into rich compost loam 2-3 meters thick, is like a sponge, holding the melt water until it saturates and the spring rain sits in the dips and hollows.  Everywhere, water stands in fields where corn and soybeans will be planted when the earth reappears.  The ditches beside the highway run in streams, showing which way the land slopes against the illusion of a flat earth.

Fairmont is the next town of any size.  We stop at the Hy-Vee supermarket’s Caribou Coffee kiosk.  I notice the Sentinel on the newsstand next to the checkout.  I delivered that newspaper the year I was 12, after school and through the summer.  My route was the southeast quadrant of our little town, from the State Street Bridge east and south, my first job.  I saved my earnings from that year, which kept me in paperback sci-fi short-story anthologies and cherry cokes from the soda fountain for the next year or two, after which my next job was summer field work for the seed corn company as a gender assignment technician, a fancy 21st-century term for pulling the tassels, the male part of the corn which contains the developing pollen, from the stalks destined to produce the hybird seed.  This was a common job in the 1950s and 1960s for teens in farm country.  We rode six across in baskets on the back of a high-frame tractor that pulled us through the corn.  Having gotten my full height at 14, I often got assigned to run behind the machine, catching the tassels missed by the others.  It was a brutal job, that paid $0.50 per hour, with a $0.10 bonus if you survived the 3-week season. When we got old enough to drive, my buddy Ray and I baled hay, mowed lawns, dug stumps, changed storm windows, whatever, to fund our simple needs in an age before computers and video games, and chip in a quarter’s worth of fuel to “drag” main street on Saturday nights looking for girls.  We never found any: they were too smart to hang out to be picked up by silly boys.

But, in this cold spring in another century, the corn fields lay empty, covered with stubble from the fall harvest, and the seed plant is gone, teen labor having been replaced by much more efficient robots.  Calculating our fuel burn and speculating on the variation in prices, we stop a bit farther down the road and fill up, before descending into the Mississippi River Valley, through the cliffs, leaving the plains behind.  We stop for lunch on the Wisconsin side, on the banks of the Great River, swollen with the spring runoff and heavy rains.  There, we leave the Interstate system, crossing Wisconsin through the cranberry bogs and timber country.  We’ve come this way before, in our journeys, but at different times of the year, so it is all new, the trees are just starting to leaf out.

Mississippi River, La Crosse, Wisconsin

We pass Oshkosh, home of the Experimental Aircraft Association, of which I have been a member for 40 years, in the faded dream of someday building my own personal aircraft, the partially finished wings of which gather dust in our cramped garage, while we do our “cranking and banking” on the bicycle.  We turn north toward Michigan.

Soon, we are in somewhat familiar territory, recognizing places we passed on our bicycle tour around the north end of Lake Michigan, six years before.  We refuel again just across the Michigan border, near where we had lunch on our bicycle trip and where a local bicyclist we had met on the road tracked us down to give us a bag of home-grown fruit.  In an hour and a half, we pass through memories of three days on the bicycle, noting where we had our tire blowout, the giant flamingo figures marking a driveway, where we stopped overnight, the bar where we spent an afternoon catching up on our blog and email through the only WiFi available.

Day 16 starts in Escanaba, the gateway to the Upper Peninsula, with frost on the windscreen.  We drive back south 3 km to a newly-opened Starbucks, past the grocery we stopped at six years ago, now empty, victim of the new mega-Walmart in the next block.  Headed back north again, we retrace our bicycle tour in reverse along US 2,  always amazed: we look at each other and say, “We rode how far that day?”  We pass the tiny 7-room motel outside which I replaced a broken spoke in the morning fog, and stop for water and other supplies at a grocery where we had lunch on our longest tour day.  Soon, we leave US 2 and head north on state highways to Sault-Ste-Marie, where we top off the tank with $2.80 USD/gallon fuel before crossing into Canada on the spectacular international toll bridge, under which the Great Lakes shipping travel flows.

It’s early morning on Mother’s Day; there’s only one car ahead of us at the Canadian customs checkpoint.  Getting into Canada is as routine as paying the toll at the U.S. side of the bridge, and we soon wind our way through Sault-Ste-Marie, Ontario and out onto highway 17.  Like most of rural Canada, the next few hundred kilometers are sparsely populated.  We pass through a few tiny communities, then turn off at the lakeside town of Thessalon for a quick lunch at the beach on Lake Huron, supplemented with fare from the local grocery.

The terrain changes near Sudbury, rugged and rocky, with deep wooded canyons hiding rivers and lakes.  The highway skirts the city, so we only see glimpses of outlying housing.  The highway turns to intermittent 4-lane, with impressive construction going on to complete the divided highway transformation, cutting through massive rock formations.  Again, we calculate the fuel burn, deciding to get fuel at one of the First Nations stops, where the price is under $1.30 CDN/liter ($3.63 USD/gallon, with currency exchange rate).

Near our destination, the GPS directs us down dead-end country lanes.  We criss-cross the side of the mountain several times before finally it finds a route where the roads actually go through, taking us the back way through what was a golf community, but the would-be links lay rough and fallow, testimony to the glut of golf courses developed in the ’90s and ’00s for retirees like my cousin Jack in Iowa, who want to live in a pastoral setting but don’t have the time or inclination to play golf.  The resort is full, and expanding, as is the neighborhood of houses whose occupants bought for the green space and proximity to winter skiing and summer mountain biking, or to golf on nearby links that have survived the boom and bust. It’s cold, and the rain starts as we check in.  But, a check of the weather shows it might be good bicycling weather later in the week, so we settle in, after an exhausting two days drive, covering  nearly 1800 km (1100 miles).

Day 17 is cold and pouring rain, all day.  We follow the GPS on more back roads, eventually ending up on the freeway at the outskirts of Barrie, a booming city of 136,000 sprawling on the south shore of Lake Simcoe, where we hope to ride our bicycle when the weather clears.  A trip to MEC, Mountain Equipment Cooperative, the Canadian counterpart to REI in the States, for maps yields not only the maps we were looking for, but some bicycle clothing for me, on clearance.  I have to admit that everything wears out eventually, despite the fact I still wear jerseys I have had for nearly 40 years, though they don’t fit well anymore and have some chain tracks and holes.  Sometimes I think I spend more for bicycle-specific clothing than I do for everyday clothing: much of the latter I now find at thrift shops for a few cents on the dollar of what they cost new.

One of the reasons we like to visit Canada is for the diversity.  A city the size of Barrie is big enough to sustain vegetarian specialties, and a Google search pays off.   We find Copper Branch, a chain of vegan fast food restaurants.  We order the power bowls, not noticing there are two sizes, so we get the large, plus hot tea, since we also failed to notice they advertised espresso at the far right of the menu board.  We mostly eat out of groceries while traveling, especially in the U.S., where meat finds its way into every menu item, and because restaurants have become increasingly unaffordable on our fixed income.  However, one must seek out new experiences when on vacation.  Even though the bill comes to $50 CDN for lunch, it is less than the cost of half a tank of fuel, and we’ve filled the tank many times to get here, so we chow down with gusto.  Judy calls for a to-go box, so dinner is free, for her, and I’m good for a light snack later.

Day 18: Although the forecast called for rain, it sputters into an intermittent mist that dissipates as the temperature rises above 10 C at last, when 20 is closer to normal this time of year.  We head into Orillia, a small city of 36,000, to check out the paved bike trails.  The maps we got cover mostly gravel trails: the ones we’ve seen from the road are soft and muddy with the spring rains.  The map we didn’t get would have shown us a paved rail trail farther west, along Victoria Bay on Lake Huron.  We plan on that for tomorrow.  Meanwhile, we do a little shopping, look over the paved bike trail, which is thick with mosquitoes, even this early and cold, and surrounded by mine fields of goose droppings.  We may ride anyway, later in the week.

Orillia is not quite as cosmopolitan as Barrie, but the Pita Pit is a reliable source of vegetarian fare.  There is no Starbucks here, and we don’t hunt for espresso, so we succumb to that Canadian staple coffee and donut shop, Tim Horton’s.  Not bad for brewed coffee, actually, and the biscuits are less fattening than Starbucks scones.  Our last stop is for a new portable hard drive, on sale at Staples.  We’ve run our new dashcam, and accumulating close to 100 GB on a long day on the road.  We’ve simply run out of space, and compressing a day’s footage to 60 GB by converting to MP4 format takes two days, so it’s a losing battle.  The GST nearly wipes out the exchange rate, but it’s still less after tax than the list price, on sale.  It’s a wabi-sabi thing, like the initially overpriced microSD cards we’ve bought at liquidation prices at Shopko stores across the country, which end up at a cost we can accept, in obsolete sizes that fit our low-end dashcam, also on sale.  We now have enough of those for a full day’s camera run and have enough storage to offload them without format conversion.   Probably 90% of the footage will end up on the cutting room floor, but for now, we have the freedom to collect our travels, but not the time to edit out the boring parts (and the part where we were fiddling with the navigation and ran a red light—it just changed, so no cross traffic, but still, that sort of thing can get you deported and banned.

The mini-fridge in our unit freezes everything until we figure out the settings, but, wabi-sabi, we’re limiting our expenses by eating out of the grocery, most meals, and put up with it.  So it goes: we’re still adventuring, but we’re old and slow, and can only keep up the pace a few hours a day.  Having gotten the CPU loading problem solved and with WiFi in our room, we can focus on blogging and editing bicycle video footage.

Day 19: Bike Ride Day!  After looking over the bike trail maps, we are reluctant to ride on the gravel trails, since it has been so wet this month.  The Tay Shore Trail, from Waubaushene to Midland, is paved, so we head up highway 12, park at a sports field next to a fire station, check out the Esso convenience store across the street, and head down 600 meters of gravel to the paved trail.  It’s cold, with a headwind, but the trail is well-maintained and relatively level.  The motor-vehicle traps at the intersections are tricky to negotiate with the long and wide tandem, since they can’t be negotiated straight-on, but soon become routine.

Victoria Harbour, Ontario, riding in the rain on the Trans-Canada Trail.

As we approach Midland, the black clouds that have grown darker the last hour let loose.  We shelter in a tented picnic area at Sainte Marie of the Hurons, a historic fort recreation, and take a short snack and water break.  The rain seems here to stay, so we continue west past the official end of the trail at Sainte Marie Park, and part way around Midland Bay before retracing our route, in sometimes heavy rain, back to the east end of the paved trail, stopping at Foodland in Victoria Harbor for more bike fuel, and at Waubaushene Beach for photo ops.  At 39 km, it’s our longest tandem ride this year, and our first ride in rain in a long time.

Day 20 promises to be variable weather and also a bit cold, so we declare a van-exploring day to check out other bicycling possibilities.  We drive west to highway 26 and north to Collingwood, Meaford, and Owen Sound.  The rail trails along highway 26 are gravel: Owen Sound is interesting, at the head of the eponymous body of water.  Besides being scenic, it is the home town of Billy Bishop, Canada’s great World War I air ace, with 72 victories claimed.  He was RCAF Air Marshal during World War II. The airports in Owen Sound and Toronto are named after him.

Kelso Park, Owen Sound, Ontario

On the way back, we find a “Discount Thursday” deal at a petrol station in Thornbury, taking on 100 liters at $1.199, the lowest price we’ve seen in Canada in years, while the average price this week is $1.272.  The rain returned as we arrived back at our condo.

Day 21: after raining most of the night, the day dawns foggy and cloudy, but promises to be hospitable for outdoor activity by noon.  In late morning, we suit up for cycling and, after consulting the array of bike route maps we’ve collected, head for Wasaga Beach.  Scoping out the loop route around the dunes, we’re glad we chose the more residential route along the beach: the loop route goes through town, where there is much road construction on the busy highway.  Wasaga Beach is famous for its long stretches of sandy beaches.  Like the sandy beaches on the Pacific Coast in Washington and Oregon, and the east side of Lake Michigan, the beaches front a series of sand dunes extended up to two kilometers inland and a 100 meters high or more, covered with oak and scrub.

After an interminable stop-and-go creep through the construction and crossing the river that parallels the beach, we find the YMCA parking lot, break out the bicycle, and head westward along the beach road toward Collingwood.  At the one beach access among the cottages, we stop and watch kite surfers in the cold wind.  It’s the Friday before a three-day weekend (Victoria Day is Monday), so traffic along the beach cottage access is heavy, with lots of stop signs.  We don’t much like road riding anymore, but it’s preferable to soft gravel.

Sunset Point, Collingwood, Ontario

The beach road soon dumps us out on a major arterial, but the shoulder is adequate.  A few kilometers into the city limits of Collingwood, the route finally veers off to residential streets, a narrow foot bridge across the Batteaux River, and a few more kilometers before putting us on the sidewalk on the busy Hwy 26 freeway.  Our erstwhile stoker almost declares a No-Fun Day, but I insist that the inconvenience and headwinds will be worth it.  We dismount and cross with the pedestrian lights, bumping along on the narrow concrete sidewalks until we cross the Pretty River and turn off toward Sunset Point Park.  We exit the park on a narrow gravel trail almost inundated by the high water and wind-whipped waves, which brings us out on Main Street, then out on Heritage Drive on the spit that shelters Collingwood Harbour.  We had driven to the Millennium Park at the end of the spit yesterday, and the wind was in our faces on the coarse gravel trail, so we stop instead at the small park next to the Yacht Club before retracing our route back to the truck, a much faster ride with the wind at our backs and the temperature up in the teens (Celsius), for a 32-km ride.  The traffic is heavy on our drive back to the condo, as the city folk head for the beaches on the opening weekend of the summer. Though it is still unseasonably cold, the weekend promises warmer weather, along with the inevitable thunderstorms.

We have another day yet in the Lake Country before heading east to explore the north shore of Lake Erie,  but the three weeks we’ve spent on the road so far have been interesting: we’ve done most of the things we planned, though we had to work around the cold and rainy weather and pick different routes to ride, and discovered places we didn’t have on our list.  Since leaving home, we’ve ridden 217 km  (134 miles) on our bicycle, more than our tandem mileage for the previous four months.

To be continued…