We decided to stay an extra night in Waterloo, at the home of our hosts-in-absentia, another touring cycling family who had kindly opened their doors to us and let us have the run of their home for a few nights. With time ticking, however, we knew we couldn’t afford to hang around or too long- and so decided we’d have to get back on the bikes on Sunday and make a move.
Sunday morning, and parts of New York city have been evacuated and the entire city placed under alert as Irene- now downgraded from a hurricane to a tropical storm- hits with full force. Huge areas of Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New Jersey are without power and further south, states are still reeling from the damages caused by the then-category 3 hurricane that ravaged along the coastline. We’ve been told the remnants of the storm will hit Quebec late Sunday night/early Monday morning, but the general feeling on Twitter and various blogs is that really, it’s not as bad as the media make it out to be: and by the time it hits us, it’ll be little more than your everyday storm. It’s raining in the morning when we set off but not enough to give us any true concern, and as such, we arm ourselves with waterproof coats (the trousers, as we’ve now learnt from experience, have been left off- I won’t resort to those unless the rain comes hand-in-hand with the cold) and set off into the wet.
It’s a reasonably easy ride to Granby- bar, perhaps, the ‘rumble-strip’ nature of the cycle path, that has been so badly laid that I’m bouncing up and down in my saddle until my teeth are jittering in my head- and as we’re making excellent time and can’t be with our Couchsurfing hosts until 6pm, we decide to stay put and find a way to pass the time. We take Theo to an indoor softplay centre, just a short ride off the bike path. We manage to find a sheltered(ish) area to leave our bikes and trudge inside. It’s with horror that I realize we have to take off our (soaking wet) shoes and wander into the playcentre in our socks. We leave a trail of large, wet, sodden footprints in our wake as we walk across the foam-mat floor and let Theo loose in the play area. Worse still, I take a seat on one of the plastic chairs in the corner- and the minute I stand up to go and change out of my drenched socks, I realize with horror that I’ve let a huge wet ass-print on the seat. I look like I’ve wet myself. How embarrassing.
We actually linger at the softplay centre for the majority of the day, having lunch, reading our books, playing with Theo. Outside, the rain got heavier, and heavier.
At 4.30, we admit defeat and decide we have to get back onto the bikes and get to our destination for the evening.
We’ve only been on the bike path for half a mile when we’re forced to stop: there’s a fallen tree lying right across the path, completely blocking our way. Matt steps into ‘Mr Strong Man’ mode and proceeds to pick up and lug the fallen tree out of the way. I can’t help but giggle at the sight of him huffing and puffing as he attempts to yank this young tree out of the way- it keeps springing back to it’s previous position, fighting him, mocking him. Branches are fighting back and whipping him in the face and arms and as he edges down the bank to pull it after him, he’s slipping and sliding on the wet mud. There’s something oddly comical about the image that just makes me want to laugh and laugh- of all the ‘hurdles’ we’ve faced on our tour thus far, this is undeniably one of the most ridiculous. He succeeds, finally, and we can get on our way.
As we cycle on, I start to notice this isn’t an isolated event. Either side of us, trees are freshly fallen, victims of the aggressive weather which has taken a decided turn for the worse. I start counting, but lose track after 20- trees of all shapes and sizes, ripped and shattered apart, torn from their trunks, tossed aside like meaningless junk. Above us, the trees are being whipped into a frenzy- thrashed and beaten by the agitated winds. The leaves are literally been torn from the branches and as I glance up, I realize they’re raining down on us, like confetti, swirling and flapping aimlessly at the mercy of the huge gusts that catch them and toss them around at will. We come across more and more felled trees blocking our path. Some, we can ride around- some, we can ride over. Matt is obliged to flex his muscles to move a few others- and when we come across one huge monster that is completely blocking our way and is far too heavy to move, some serious teamwork is required as Matt heaves the weight of the trunk onto his shoulders and hoists it just high enough that I can slip underneath with the bikes. We’re forced onto the grass verge and into the ditch on more than one occasion, and the journey is becoming a fragmented, stop-start mess. And it isn’t just trees. The entire path is littered with the debris of the storm, as the powerful winds ravage everything in their path. There’s an array of branches in all sizes, of numerous twigs, leaves, plants, stones- all discarded at will in our path. Huge puddles of water have formed and we’re wading through a good 2-3inches in places. The winds are frighteningly powerful but for once, they’re working in our favour to some extent- strong tailwinds, pushing us on. Our average speed has jumped from 10mph to 15-20…10mph faster than normal. The occasional gust from the side in exposed areas puts my heart into my mouth on more than one occasion- I’m clutching the handles with a vice-like grip as my bike wobbles uncontrollably beneath me.
And suddenly, it’s not quite so funny. Actually, it’s fucking serious. (I’m sorry- this is a family blog and I try my hardest not to swear, but on this occasion the situation warrants the sentiment. Because yes, it was that bad.)
“What if a tree blows down on us?!” Matt yells back to me in the howling winds.
“That would just be rotten bad luck!” I scream back.
He doesn’t say it, but I know we’re both thinking it- I have a history of bad luck, so if it’s gonna happen to anyone, it’s gonna happen to me.
The winds have reached terrifying speeds and we’re both feeling decidedly nervous. Actually, in my case, really rather scared. I look ahead and I can see the trees being forced down unnaturally, arching and bent double in the winds, crashing together across the path. Branches are whipping against each other, slapping and fighting and the air is a chorus of the pelting rain, the swish-slap of the trees, the howling wind and the occasional, sickening crack of splitting branches. I can hardly see through the heavy rain and I’m dodging and darting through the branches that are overhanging the path as the wind forces them down. I’m aware of huge ragged pieces of wood flying through the air past me, with the occasional piece slapping against my bare legs or sending me off-course as they strike my bike. I’m starting to feel like I’m losing control.
Out of nowhere, there’s a sudden SMACK!!!!!! And I’m momentarily knocked for six as my heart stops in a panic and my head is inexplicably jutted sideways. I’ve been hit by a tree. Not a falling tree- a live, standing tree that has simply been blow almost double and chose that precise moment to smack down upon my head. It’s not a hard hit by any means- but nonetheless, it leaves my heart pounding in fear and my whole body shaking.
The wind is making the rain hit harder and harder. I’m transported back to my early teens when the local guys thought it was ‘cool’ to show off their BB guns at any available opportunity. I can still vividly remember the sting of those hard plastic pellets when the boys thought it would be fun to shoot us at close range as we hung up after school. That’s what the rain feels like to me now. Hundreds of BB pellets, pounding against my skin. It stings painfully and I find myself wondering if it’s actually hailstones, rather than rain- wondering if they’re going to bruise. The rain is hitting me sideways and stinging my ears through the hood of my coat.
“We should just stay here!!” Matt declares as we reach an underpass at one section of the bike route. I shake my head firmly. This storm is expected to get worse- and I am not going to risk being caught in the full wrath. We need to keep going and get to shelter- proper shelter.
It feels like the world is being whipped up around us- literally torn apart before our eyes. We pass through an exposed section through cornfields and without the limited shelter of the trees, we can barely stay on our bikes. Water is gushing in torrents in the gullies either side of the path, and beginning to spill over in places. I’m absolutely drenched to the core and can feel water flooding down every crevice and curve of my body. The water is my eyes blurs my contacts and clouds my vision.
“This is ridiculous!” Matt argues as we pause between sections of the cycle path, “we should just go knock at the nearest house. Look at it! It’s getting dangerous!”
I survey the chaos around us.
However, I’m still pumped with adrenaline after my slap on the head by the tree and again find myself shaking my head. We’re only 3 miles away now. We have to keep going. We have to.
It’s only moments later, when we encounter yet another fallen tree- a proper, big one this time- that I’m regretting my decision and thinking how utterly stupid I am to be putting myself at risk like this. This storm is far, far stronger and bigger than we are. It’s going to destroy us, just like everything else.
We pass a bike shelter with a picnic table and once again Matt appeals to me-
“We could easily set up camp here, look!”
I don’t even gratify that one with a response. I grit my teeth together and cycle on harder than ever. I’m frozen, soaked, and I’m a little bit frightened. There is absolutely no way I am camping in this. Even if it is under a shelter.
The 15 miles to Farnham pass with surprising speed as the wind gets behind us and gives us an almighty push. When we finally head off the cycle path, I find myself breathing a sigh of relief at the prospect of tree-less roads for the last couple of miles. But as we weave our way along the local roads and then finally join Rte 104, the road on which our hosts for the night live, we’ve changed direction several times and are faced with the prospect of doing the final 2-3miles in aggressive sidewinds on exposed, open terrain. I’m actually having to position my bike at a 15-20degree angle sideways into the wind in order to stay upright. Remembering the incident when we were both blown off our bikes in the Rockies early on in the trip, I take my feet out of my cages- if I’m falling off this thing, I am falling onto my feet. We’re going cautiously slow, but not too slow- if you go too slow, the wind catches you and plays with you like a plastic ball, shifting you from hand to hand with effortless ease. Ahead of me, Matt is hunched down and forward, trying to minimize his surface area. I find myself laughing, in spite of myself. Given the size of the trailer, I don’t know if bending his head down is gonna make that much of a difference.
When we finally reach our hosts for the evening, the relief is almost tangible. Only the storm is taking hold here, too. The lounge has been flooded and water is dripping through the floorboards into the basement below. The brook behind the house is now dangerously high and threatening to spill over into the house. The electricity is flickering on and off precariously, going completely in the middle of the night, and towels are lining the floor to soak up the water. We come in, and the sheer amount of water dripping from us is pretty impressive. I take off my shoes and pour out a mini river of water from them, peeling off my lycra shorts that have become a second skin and wringing out my (second pair of!) drenched socks. A hot shower has never felt so good!
Hurricane Irene was downgraded to a tropical storm, and finally a post-tropical storm by the time it reached us. And in fact, if the weather reports be believed, we were actually cycling ahead of the storm, which wasn’t due to hit Quebec until the early hours of the next morning. However, I can say with absolute certainty that that is the closest I ever want to come to a hurricane- particularly whilst on a bike. We’ve cycled in rain and even storms before- and admittedly, the lack of thunder and lightening, and the surprisingly light grey clouds above us gave a far less foreboding atmosphere than some we have faced previously. It was the sheer strength and speed of the winds that made it so unbelievably frightening- their capacity and ability to wreck havoc upon everything and anything in their path.
As I lay in bed that night, listening to the world being torn up outside, I can only think one thing.
Thank god I’m not camping in this.
Total miles today: 36 miles
Total miles to date: 2,953 miles