Leaving Ottawa after our day off with Angie and Matthew, we planned to head south-west and edge back towards the Ottawa River to the point at which it joined with Lake Ontario, where we would join the Waterfront Trail and begin the very final stretch towards our final city and destination- Toronto. How can the end be so near already?
Weaving our way out of Ottawa wasn’t as bad as we had anticipated or come to expect from urban cycling- although the cycle route system wasn’t quite on the same level as the Route Verte in Quebec, Matt nonetheless identified the more ‘cyclist-friendly’ roads and we joined the 10, passing through Richmond, Prospect, Gillies Corners. With the prospect of our imminent return to the UK becoming ever-more prominent, it must be said that the ‘wherefores’ and ‘what-hows’ of our return tended to occupy our minds for the most part of these few days of cycling, with the scenery offering little more than gentle, rolling countryside and small towns with a distinct ‘British’ feel that only added to the almost nostalgic thoughts we shared about ‘home’. Strongly Loyalist territory, many of the towns boasted features I immediately identified with and hadn’t seen so frequently during the previous legs of our trip- local butchers, bakers and quirky antique shops, more traditional-style stone churches, local town halls and snug highstreets with a quaint, almost romantic feel of history. It made me realise how little I appreciate the culture of my own country: how much I take for granted the small quirks that most likely captivate tourists to the UK each and every year. And yet there are many aspects of both Canada and the US that, no doubt, the residents themselves take for granted- but continue to enthrall and captivate me! Like the mailboxes, for example- everything from the prestiguous, ‘property of USPS’ boxes to the crazy, quirky moose/boat/bear/horse/house etc. shaped individual ones… those barely standing and rusting from their posts, those adorned with flowers and proudly engraved with the resident’s names. You can tell a lot about those who live in each house just from their mailbox alone- a small, but nonetheless insightful indication of personality. Although I know similar mailboxes exist in areas of the UK, they aren’t the general norm- and our tiny brass letterboxes set into the front door seem drab and plain by comparison.
It’s the old-style barns and homesteads, complete with a herd of horses grazing out front and the promise of ‘Western lessons’ (?!) that allude to the deep south I never got to see; the fact that you can wear a wide-brimmed ‘cowboy’ hat here and no-one will blink an eyelid. (Actually, perhaps that’s the case in the UK also…but there, it’s as a fashion statement. For the most part here, it’s an indication of a certain lifestyle) I love the fact that you can’t go more than a few miles without seeing a make-shift sign mounted onto a telephone pole advertising the closest ‘garage/yard sale’ and residents happily leave all manner of odds and ends displayed in their front yard – either to simply take for free, or trusting the honesty of others by leaving them there with a ‘for sale’ sign. I think if I left a collection of Theo’s old toys or household wares out front of my house with a ‘for sale’ sign, they would mysteriously disappear within a few hours. I like the distinctly ‘Canadian’ feel to our camping as we huddle around a fire with the sound of the heavy goods trains chugging and whistling in the distance, and the coyotes howling alongside. Or the large logging trucks- as much danger as they pose to us as cyclists- I actually find myself smiling as they dash past, enjoying the fact that this is something I simply wouldn’t see as a norm back home. Even the monster-sized RVs, pulled by their equally enormous gas-guzzling pick-up trucks that I once cursed or stared at in astonishment have become a welcome indication of the culture and society in which we ride. The huge houses set comfortably in acres of their own land, the fact that everyone seems to own a ride-on lawn mower regardless of the size of their land, and the oddly quaint vegetable and fruit stands that line the roads- from the big farms selling their wares, to the elderly couple who enjoy keeping a vegetable patch in their spare time, and leave a little basket of their proudest efforts by their mailbox with a small box for money/donations alongside, trusting your honesty not to take without offering something in return. In particular, it was the cherries out west; the sweetcorn out here! And, of course, the patriotic pride with which residents fly the flag of their country outside their homes, from their shops, in their cars. Some quirks I may not necessarily understand or agree with (WHY do they paint the roofs of churches out here a gilted silver, that looks like the tacky cheap spray paint you buy at Christmas? I just feel it detracts from the beauty of the architecture underneath… but it seems to be incredibly popular) but nonetheless, for me, they have become part and parcel of the American/Canadian experience.
We spent the night in Perth, opting for a cheap motel as the rain threatened to break with force and our backs, suffering from the failing of our inflatable mattresses, were desperate for relief (I actually found a sizeable bruise along my spine after my mattress deflated in the night and I found myself laid upon a stone. How it didn’t wake me up, I’ll never know…) We also found, once more, that the notable distance between towns had left us without the luxury of choice in terms of places to stay- and as such, our daily mileage would be increased significantly as a result. Ironically we actually had time on our side and could afford to slow down the pace- but with a choice of either 20 miles or closer to 60 to reach a town offering any sort of accommodation, it was tricky to determine what was for the best. Neither ones to shy away from a challenge, however, we chose the greater mileages- the sense of achievement being reward enough for the hard work!
From Perth, therefore, we decided to head to Kingston- in spite of the long mileage this promised- and weaved our way through the many, many lakes that are scattered along this particular stretch. However, I couldn’t seem to focus on my immediate surroundings. My mind, previously free to wander in all manner of directions- to seize upon the sights before me and bound off at will as desired- was becoming ‘caged in’ once more, yielding to the imminent pressures of returning to reality back home. As I cycled, I found myself adopting ‘to do’ lists, trying to visualise our lives upon our return, problem-solving, analysing, preparing. As I cycled, I was creating my CV; forming budgets and weekly food planners, thinking about day-to-day worries and chores- making doctors appointments, the prospect of toilet-training Theo, how we can afford to run a car. I almost resented my brain for doing this: it was as though I had no control over my own mind, and while part of me remained desperate to enjoy the freedom and time I had left, a logical, more practical part of me remained insistent upon preparing for the inevitable return to reality. Naturally, there are aspects I am looking forward to returning to- friends and family, a comfortable bed that doesn’t collapse halfway through the night!- but the liberating sensation of living so simply, of having little more material cares than from where we might get our next meal or where to sleep that night- that’s something I am undeniably going to miss. It’s frustrating that my ‘old’ life is already laying claims upon me, even though our adventure has yet to end.
A long day of 62miles found us weary and achey when we finally found our way to the Kingston KOA campsite, allowing Theo the luxury of a few hours play in the playground while Matt and I showered and cooked. We continued to be plagued, however, by my number 1 vice- mosquitoes!- and soon the constant need to itch and swat away those attacking me became too much. On our return to our tent, however, we bumped into an elderly couple, taking an evening walk about the campsite, who expressed interest in our journey and our bikes, asking us questions and giving me that continued sense of pride and achievement as they praised our ability to undertake such a venture- “Especially with a little one!”- until they noticed my uncomfortable, continued scratching and itching.
“Oh, you suffer from the mosquitoes? Have you ever heard of the thermapik?” they enquired. I replied in the negative.
After a brief description, they promptly excuse themselves and asked if we would remain where we were. Moments later, they returned with the device in question- offering it to me in order to relieve my suffering!- and catching me entirely by surprise at their kindness. A small, battery-powered, pen-shaped device, it emits heat and when placed upon the bite, ‘draws out’ the vermin that causes the itch and inflammation (or so I was told) – dubious, but nonetheless desperate, I willingly gave it a go. Let me tell you, that thing is amazing! Just 30-40seconds or so on each bite and suddenly, the itch was gone. Admittedly it took me some time to go over all my bites (28 from that one night, I counted the following morning) and some of the more stubborn, larger ones required me to go over them more than once, but it was well worth the effort. Thumbs up from me- and endless gratitude to the couple in question, who saved me from a night of uncomfortable scratching and (yet more) scarring upon my legs.
After such a long day, physical tiredness proved to be the very best sleeping agent- in spite of our uncomfortable beds, we all slept soundly.
The next day, we were to head just a short distance to Bath, where the parents of Rob- the avid cyclist whom we had met through our hosts in Ottawa- had offered to put us up for the night. Just 18miles away from the campsite, we had excuse enough to linger in the morning and enjoy breakfast without the need to rush off, and took a leisurely ride towards the town, stopping for lunch before reaching our hosts. Proud declarations of Loyalist support were evident all along the route- in fact, the demonstrations of allegiance were perhaps greater than I can recall seeing anywhere in the UK. Is this simply because I don’t see what’s right in front of my eyes- or because the British don’t demonstrate their patriotic pride,or even perhaps lack it altogether?! I’m not sure. But as my thoughts inevitably drifted towards ‘home’, these reminders seemed only to taunt me further- I can’t escape the reality. The UK- it’s everywhere. haunting and following me, calling me back. I’m not ready, I want to shout, not yet. Not yet.
At length, we found our way into the lovely golf community area of Bath, and to Rob’s parents, Mary-Lou and Ian. We received the warmest greeting and at once were settled with food, drinks, offered a shower. We spent a nice, leisurely afternoon perched on the back deck overlooking the large golf course and soaking up the rays, having Theo happily entertained by the baskets of toys set aside by Mary-Lou for her own grandchildren as we shared stories and talked. I also found myself almost unwillingly drawn towards the collection of magazines and commemorative issues celebrating the Royal Wedding, leafing through the photos and stories, finding myself oddly horrified and embarrassed as I discovered that in fact, I knew so little about the iconic royal family of my own country- Mary-Lou put me to shame as I vowed (not for the first time) to pay greater attention to matters of national significance upon my return- from politics, economics, the education system, British culture, tradition and the royal family- there are so many gaps in my knowledge. Have I been living in some form of bubble all this while? How is it that I drifted so far from the subjects that once fascinated me- as a student of history and politics at A level in particular!- how have I lost my thirst for knowledge so greatly? I blame motherhood. And perhaps the significant levels of alcohol consumption at University…
After a wonderful meal, Mary-Lou and Ian whisked us down the road for ice-cream, with a gleeful Theo eagerly covering himself with chocolate rolo ice-cream and keeping us all entertained with his energy and excitement. I love his capacity to warm to people so quickly on this trip: shyness has been long-since eradicated and these days, he’s as open and friendly as can be, charming everyone, adapting with admirable ease to any situation in which he is placed. I envy his capacity to just ‘fit’ anywhere we place him- I only hope this same sense of openness remains once we introduce him back into the likes of school, toddler groups and so on…
We ate and drank well into the evening, enjoying the company and the chance to relax after a few long days on the road. A perfect evening, with most heartfelt thanks to Mary-Lou and Ian- perhaps our most ‘randomly found’ hosts to date- let’s see if I can get this one right…
Met Angie & Matthew at campsite in Maine – stay with Angie and Matthew in Ottawa – introduced to their friend&neighbour Rob – Rob puts us in touch with his parents.
If ever there is a demonstration of the big hearts of those out there, this is it!
Thank you to Ian and Mary-Lou for taking such wonderful care of us.