Halifax, NS: closing entry

21 Aug

I’m writing this post on my train home to Toronto after a week of recovery time in Halifax. I wanted to post some closing thoughts and thank you, dear readers, for all of your encouragement and friendship along the way, which always cheered me up and kept me going.

Having tracked major rail corridors for most of my journey, the train seemed like the right ticket home. VIA will also check four panniers and a bike at no extra cost, and the pace feels more manageable than flying after months of 100-200km days. Even the train is moving West so fast I can barely stand it. I worked so hard to get to the Atlantic, and now I’m zipping backwards!

It seems like an appropriate moment to reflect on how this adventure compared with my goals and expectations, which were fuzzy when I set off. I did think I would find something on the way, but I didn’t know what it would be. Eric Glass of This American Life helped along the way by describing the road trip cliché:

Any road trip is going to feel longer than you think it will. And you’ll be tired, and you won’t get a meal exactly when you’re hungry. You never find a bed exactly when you want to go to sleep. And you’re probably not going to find out what it is you got on the road to find out in the first place. And you know all that, you know all that going into it. And you still – we all, still – buy into the cliche about road trips: that what a road trip stands for is hope that somewhere, anywhere, is better than here. That somewhere on the road, I will turn into the person I want to be. I’ll turn into the person that I believe that I could be, that I am.

It’s true that food, sleep and revelation are rarely where you would like them to be, but I don’t think I hoped to become a new person, to get away from where I was, or to uncover any specific insight. As it turned out, the trip gave me new perspective, new confidence, a richer relationship with my country and its geography, lasting memories of a grand adventure, and a sense of having tested my limits and risen to the challenge. I’m in better shape than I’ve been in ages, I’ve contributed something small, at least, to awareness about why steady-state economics is an important environmental concept, and I’ve identified a cause to put my weight behind moving forward. All told, I’m bringing home more than I could have hoped for, and I’m sure any others now contemplating a similar trip will find themselves doing the same.

An aside about fuel economy: I’ve seen claims that, calorie for calorie, crossing the country on a bike is thousands of times more efficient than a car. That’s quite an exaggeration, and it equates gasoline calories with food calories. With both meat and veggies in my diet, I probably get about two to three times the miles per gallon and carbon efficiency of a solo driver, and do slightly worse than a bus or a full car. Of course, these calculations overlook the fact that the cycling trip takes months rather than days, and is as much about the voyage as the destination. Besides, it’s much more fun eating food than burning gasoline, and many of those calories came off of my gut!

Returning to the final days of my time in Halifax: I arrived with little energy remaining. For the first few days in town, I did little more than catch up on the final entries of this journal and enjoy the company of Hanah’s mom, Jan, at her home. After Hanah arrived a few days later, we had to size each other up for awhile to make sure we were the right people, but were convinced soon enough. I’ve now enjoyed a week of recovery time, and I’m looking forward to seeing my folks at home. I’m ready to tackle packing, goodbyes and other final tasks in Toronto before setting off on my move to the US.

Thank you again, readers, for helping me complete this great adventure!

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Ceremonial Atlantic Ocean wheel-dip.

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Hanah, mom and family.

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“The Ocean” takes me home.

Post-game breakdown

16 Aug

Departed Vancouver: June 13, 2010
Arrived Halifax: August 13, 2010
Total # riding days: 52.5
Total # resting days: 10.5
Total distance travelled: 6717km
Average distance per riding day: 128km
Longest distance day: 221km (Minnedosa to Winnipeg)
Hills walked: 0
Total altitude gain: 32910 m (60 CN towers!)
Highest point: 1680m (Sinclair Pass, Continental Divide, BC)
Most difficult day: Drumheller, AB to Big Stone, AB (mosquito armageddon)
Best / worst highway cycling infrastructure: Québec (best) / Ontario (worst)
Nights free camping / paid camping: 10 / 21
Nights hosted / motel mooching / paid motel: 16 / 11 / 4

Graves Island to Halifax: 79km (6717km)

16 Aug

Today is August 13th, 2010, two months after I left Vancouver. It was a short day to Halifax, so I let myself sleep in. I ate up pasta leftovers for breakfast and enjoyed the ocean view by daylight.

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Graves Island Provincial Park.

I was feeling sluggish again this morning and found the hills out of Chester to be substantial, so I took a rail trail at the first opportunity. This smoothed out the hills and a headwind, and kept me out of traffic. Secondary highway 3 along the coast was only moderately busy, but there was no shoulder, lots of tight curves and blind hills, so it felt a bit dodgy. The rail trail did not have much coastal scenery, but there were a few good moments.

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Bridge over river feeding into St. Margaret’s Bay.

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One last rail trail.

I expected that I would be full of thoughts again today, but I was exhausted and more than anything just wanted to reach Halifax. I took in a few lectures on water and sports nutrition. Did you know that dehydration reduces endurance and muscle strength even for four hours after you’ve rehydrated? This and other fascinating tidbits kept me from lingering on the excitement of reaching my destination, which seemed further than I had imagined first thing in the morning. Still, by early evening, I was there!

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The destination!

Neil called from the bridge to Dartmouth just before I reached the city limits to report that he was downtown and ready to celebrate! However, we were both at a loss for a meeting place. Just as I reached the Halifax Rotary, I got a call from Hanah, who is Halifax native and directed me to an appropriate midway pub, where Neil and I met moments later.

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Neil celebrates Vancouver to Halifax with a beer.

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I celebrate Vancouver to Halifax with a beer.

A man leaned into our sidewalk patio to ask, “Are those your bikes?” Yes. “Did you really bike cross the continent?” Yes! He explained that he had passed the same pub one year ago and found a similar touring bike and cross-Canada cyclist munching down on spaghetti. The cyclist hadn’t thought to dip his wheel in the Ocean, so the man took him to Point Pleasant Park at the end of Halifax to take his photo for the ceremony. He offered to do the same for us, but Neil had done his ceremonial dip and I will wait for Hanah in a few days. He said he would return to the pub next year to try again.

Neil headed off to the airport as his flight leaves first thing the next morning. His wife has been anxious for him to get home and he is going to arrive a day ahead of schedule to surprise her. I rode to Hanah’s mother’s house – she kindly offered to host me as we wait for Hanah to fly in – and enjoyed a warm welcome and all the comforts of home.

I will sleep well tonight, knowing that the big adventure has come to an end. I’ll put some statistics together in the next few days and will post some concluding thoughts on my long train ride home.

Bridgetown to Graves Island: 145km (6638km)

16 Aug

A heavy dew set in overnight in Bridgetown and the camp seemed to turn into crystal.

My mind has been in places other than on the road, zipping about between personal and work things to tackle once I reach Halifax, the fate of my “mission”, what my new home will be like in New Jersey, my fantasy campsite on the Atlantic Ocean… I shelved Pip’s adventures in Great Expectations to make room for all this mental bustle.

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Heavy dew on the campsite.

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The bridge in Bridgetown.

I fought a headwind all morning and found the long flat Annapolis Valley along the Northwest side of Nova Scotia to still be fairly hilly. It was a slow ride and I felt sluggish all morning. Traffic was heavier than yesterday and grew heavier as I approached the Northeast. It took a big, late pizza lunch to get me energized.

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Farming country in the Annapolis Valley.

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Liability catch-all! Good trail, but didn’t ride it for long.

After lunch, I was relieved to get off this highway and take a right turn to cross the province interior. My speed actually picked up in this section, in spite of the hills, thanks to the absence of headwinds. However, there is not much to say about the interior, other than taking notice of a few interesting buildings. The road runs through scrappy bush without much of a view at any point. The forest was harvested years ago and is young. There was not much traffic. During this stretch my thoughts took over. It is a peculiar thing to realize you’ve been doing hard physical work, climbing big hills, monitoring traffic and zipping down slopes at 45kph with no presence of mind.

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Sleepy interior road.

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Rural church.

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Homestead near New Ross.

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Farm near Chester Basin.

Nova Scotians seem to prefer small sedans, bless them. SUVs and pickup trucks are not as common as in other provinces. What’s more, drivers do the right thing when they approach from behind and don’t have enough room to pass: they slow down and wait for the passing lane to open up. This has not happened to me anywhere else in Canada and today I experienced it all day. I pull off the road to let drivers pass when I notice they are stuck behind me. It is more typical for drivers to squeeze past no matter how little breathing room this gives you, some even leaning on the horn as they pass. But not in Nova Scotia. Some drivers even tootle their horn to let you know they’re about to overtake you.

For a few days now, I’ve harboured a fantasy of camping on the Atlantic Ocean this night, August 12th, the last night of my trip and, coincidentally, the peak of the Perseid meteor shower. I wasn’t sure I would make it all the way across the interior by nightfall in light of the hills, but I did. That’s right, the Atlantic Ocean! I am camped at Graves Island Provincial Park, which is everything I hoped tonight’s campsite would be. It’s a short ride off the mainland to the park, where I have a view of the ocean and a clear sky. I set up my tent with the fly covering half of my tent, so that I can look straight up and see the show overhead. I made a luxurious dinner (pasta with fresh vegetables!) and am writing tonight’s journal entry to pass the time before the meteor shower picks up and I get into some serious stargazing.

Neil sent me a text message to report that he is in Truro and expecting to be in Halifax late tomorrow. Although we took quite different routes, it looks like we’ll keep pace until the end. Tomorrow night, celebration.

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Sunset over the interior.

Digby to Bridgetown: 58km (6493km)

15 Aug

After last night’s late ferry docking, I let myself sleep in until the hot sun woke me. Today I did laundry, cleaned myself up, ate good food and caught up on some journal entries. I also did a half day of riding to set myself up for an easy two-day journey into Halifax.

In downtown Digby I met Will, a fellow touring cyclist with much the same rig (and physique) as mine. Will is an ESL teacher from New York, is riding to Newfoundland, and is a very laid back, amiable fellow. He suggested riding together, but he needed to do laundry first and I was ready to spend my last riding days in reflection. I suggested lunch instead, and we headed for a restaurant he had heard recommended and had a fun time sharing experiences. The fish and chips were good, but the rhubarb and raspberry pie were… to pie for.

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Delicious pie.

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Will and tasty seafood restaurant.

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Highway view of Digby Inlet.

I took an arterial road to get past some bridges and into the Annapolis Valley. The roadways are probably overbuilt in this area, as there are three running more or less parallel and none were very busy. I arrived in Bridgetown right at dusk and settled into my campsite. I took a walk about town and found the entire town was asleep.

I found myself busy with my thoughts today and this evening. With just two more days of cycling left, this seems like the moment to consolidate experiences and digest what I can.

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Halifax on the menu!

Fredericton to Digby: 124km (6435km)

15 Aug

My host called my cell early this morning and apologized for not being around last night – he was at his girlfriend’s house and the number I had was a landline to his own apartment. I suggested breakfast, but he only had time to catch me on the way to work, so we spoke for a few minutes as I packed up my tent. I was packed and riding by 8am, which I felt was pretty impressive! It was a good thing I managed to push off that early, too, because the hostel office was understandably not pleased I had been out there.

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Stealthy campsite next to youth hostel.

My distance ambitions for today were constrained by the ferry to Nova Scotia, which embarks only twice a day, once at noon and once in the evening. This gave me some time to catch up on errands in Fredericton, including replacing the dead battery on my odometer and other overdue maintenance. There is usually some component or another not working well on my bike, but the bonus tinkering time had me humming along with full functionality.

Traffic was again very light on another secondary highway heading South. It was sunny and hot, and by early afternoon a big climb had me cooling off in the shade. I haven’t needed many overheating breaks, but today it was unavoidable. While I was resting, the owner walked over and shared some of her history. Her father had worked as a railman at Fredericton Junction, which an important juncture for freight offloaded at the port in St. John. There was little other than houses, a gas station and a restaurant. She lamented the decommissioning of the rail line through town (now cycling trail) and I sympathized with her point of view.

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Sugar and ice, together at last!

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Barns across from my cooling spot.

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A few ancient trees remain and dwarf all others.

The last 30km into St. John were hard work, with constant, substantial hills, headwinds and a flash storm that I dodged at a gas station. I was worn out from the hot climbing earlier in the day and had to take it slow in my approach. I was happy to have lots of time before my ferry departure.

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Wisdom from a garbage dumpster.

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Side street in St. John.

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Steady at the ferry terminal.

The crew let me ride onto the ferry before the other traffic and strapped down my bike. I claimed a seat with a nice view and a power outlet for charging of gizmos, picked up some dinner at the onboard grill and logged onto the ship wifi to plan my route across Nova Scotia. The ship was an entertainment complex, with all of these features plus an onboard bar and café, movie theatre, TV news area, arcade room and gift shop. I found the viewing deck to be the main attraction and a source of much excitement. Besides the thrill of watching the shore recede and the lights of the night go by, there were constant flashes of lightning to the South. From the deck, I spoke to Hanah on my cell, which got remarkably good reception 35km from land.

There was another pair of touring cyclists on board, who turned out to have stayed at the same youth hostel I somewhat stayed at last night. At 57, they are emulating a trip their daughters had done at 16, and are now even more impressed with their daughters.

From the ferry landing it was a short, peaceful night ride along the bay to my campsite. I had my tent set up just before a gentle rain came down, although the storm never landed.

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Disembarking from St. John.

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Midnight welcome to Nova Scotia.

Muniak to Fredericton: 150km (6311km)

14 Aug

It was raining when I woke up today, so I rolled over and went back to sleep. This plan was successful, as the next time I woke up the rain had stopped and I packed up without everything getting wet.

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Steady and my behind-the-convenience-store campsite.

I thanked my convenience store hosts and told them about the trip and mission. Word spread quickly and a constable chatted me up as I packed my bike, contributing some friendly, bad advice about a route to Fredericton. You really do need tools like bikemap.net and/or Google Maps to find the shorter, less hilly and less travelled route. Most locals won’t have cycled the roads.

The trail, so much my friend for the last two days, was not to be relied upon today. The overnight rain had flooded large sections, and there was little wind or traffic on the highway, which was more scenic.

Over breakfast, I discovered a wifi point and worked out that the high road, 104, both was 30km shorter and involved 2/3rds of the total climbing. The route was so advantageous that it put Fredericton in range as a target for the night, whereas I had thought it would take me two. I got directions to the access road at a grocery in Hartville, where my server said she would encourage her son to do a school project on steady state.

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World’s longest covered bridge in Hartville, the town with ville, I mean, heart.

The shortcut took me through remote New Brunswick and served to connect scattered farms and dwellings, with only one or two towns of any size. Houses were close to the road, putting residents in chatting range (and quite a few dogs in chasing range, though all were satisfied with distance yapping). I enjoyed two or three conversations prompted by beckoning residents. One older fellow told me about his bike trip from Toronto 30 years ago. It sounds like life is much better for touring cyclists today, based on changes in highway infrastructure, driver attitudes and camping gear.

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Puppies investigate as I chat with their owner.

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Geese, peacocks, chickens, ducks…

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Kid on patrol across from bird farm.

There was a lot of up and down and sufficiently little traffic to elicit waves from passing motorists. Towards the end of the day I noticed that house numbers were counting down to zero and used this to measure my progress. This is not a very interesting game to play, but once you start you can’t help it.

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Under renovation.

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Parishioners: front access requires “leap of faith”.

I was tired but happy to arrive in Fredericton after a tough day of hills and distance covered. I found my way to my host’s apartment – nameless to protect the innocent – and could not find or reach him all night! By 11pm I started looking into other plans and found a youth hostel nearby. The office was closed, the closest motel and campsite were a long way off, and it was dark and cold, so I left a note in the office and pitched my tent in a secluded spot in the backyard. I was stealthy, though my tent glows by the light of my netbook. I will clear out early to minimize the irregularity.

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Perfect calm on the St. John river.

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Bridge to downtown Fredericton at dusk.

Edmunston to Muniak: 118km (6161km)

11 Aug

Last was the coldest night yet – contributing to this cold sensation was the mysterious self-deflation of my sleeping mat. It’s the second time that’s happened, so there might be a leak, but then it doesn’t happen every night.

I said farewell to La Praga Hotel and had a quick Tim Horton’s breakfast. I was on schedule, Atlantic Time. The sun guides my waking more than the local time. My favourite kind of waking up is when the sun strikes the tent and makes it just a little too warm to sleep through. That happened this morning. Delightful.

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Camped at Hotel La Praga.

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Downtown Edmunston.

Neil caught up with me an hour into the day and we rode to Grand Falls, where we made the very most of a local pizza restaurant. We shared a pizza, charged our gizmos, filled our water bottles, and enjoyed the clean facilities. Two of Neil’s friends who have been keeping pace, Jocelyn and Tyler, caught up on their bikes and joined us for lunch there. Tyler remembered, remarkably, that we had met in a 30 second exchange at a busy intersection in Thunder Bay.

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Grand Falls (now Grand Dam – to enable charging of gizmos).

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1950’s-style “perfect lawns” everywhere.

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Neil adds a contemporary entry to his church photo collection.

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Typical home.

Neil and I are now connoisseurs of the charging of gizmos. Usually there is no power outlet available for overnight charging. However, most fast food outlets have a plug somewhere in the seating area. At this morning’s Tim Horton’s, the outlet was next to the door, so I set up my laptop in a baby chair and kept an eye on it from my table. Then there was a utility pole outside a motel today – perfect for borrowing motel wifi – and then the pizza charge. The fruit of my labour is plenty of juice in my netbook to write an entry this evening and catch up on photos for the last few days.

At lunch we resolved to head for Muniak. This was significant because of strong headwinds from the South. I proposed returning to the Trans-Canada Trail, which is narrow and provides shelter from the wind, and we split up to sample the different options. Neil and his friends were defeated by the wind and camped just outside of town. I was committed to the trail with no easy way back to the highway campsite, and my situation was quite a bit better, so I carried on.

The trail out of Grand Falls featured a rough downhill with brick-sized rocks in deep sand. I didn’t wipe out, but I got another front flat – with an interior side puncture, this time – that soon recurred as a second interior side puncture. I noticed the tire had been looking wobbly since my five flats two days ago, so I checked for loose spokes and tightened a few that had been jostled free from their housing. The loose ones had probably punched the tube, since the truing job held off further flats.

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More repairs.

Based on that rough treatment, I give up on the trail and took a local road along the St. John river. I approached a big hill and was faced with the option of heading straight up or taking a trail access at its base. I opted to give the now-groomed trail another chance, and to my pleasant surprise, it was much improved and spared me both headwinds and elevation gain. I rode it until an hour before sundown, by which point the winds were calmer and I was hungry. Ordering today’s milkshake (blackberry) at a bar laiterie, some locals warned me to stay off the trails close to dark because of bear danger. Sounds good to me.

By the way, at this point everyone speaks English again. French was fun, but this is a relief.

I stopped at a convenience store just before Muniak and asked about the provincial campsite I was seeking out in town. The owner explained that the campsite had been purchased by a biker gang who had made changes and now wouldn’t pay for the insurance needed for outside campers use the property. He suggested I could sneak in and set up anyway, but that didn’t seem like a great idea. I proposed a stay behind his store and he had no problem with that, and even refused my money. So, this is my second night of free camping. I must be loosening up, eh Tom?

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Nightfall near Muniak.

Rivière du Loup à Edmunston: 144km (6041km)

11 Aug

I said goodbye to Guy and Karen this morning and set about my restocking mission. I searched for a bike open at 9am and was rewarded with an emergency tire, three spare tubes and a new patch kit. I also purchased a roll of “Mr. Tuffy” to extend the life of my problematic front touring tire, since the shop didn’t have any suitable replacement in stock.

In spite of tempting fate with 131 kilometers of gravel, I didn’t need any of these. There is an interprovincial trail connecting Rivière du Loup and Edmunston that is a decommissioned rail line for cyclists only (snowmobilers in winter). This is a good thing, because the only alternative route is a twinned highway that’s illegal for cyclists. I have sometimes ignored the “no cyclists” sign where I have no options, but I’m happy to oblige otherwise. The sign usually indicates unpleasant riding, dodging cars from on- and off-ramps, etc.

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2 eggs, sausages, toast, hash browns – in Québec, add fresh fruit.

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To obey, or not to obey?

The interprovincial trail is a segment of the Trans-Canada trail and the Route Verte. It takes you through forest, fields, backyards and golf courses and along scenic lakes and rivers. I was second-guessing this choice for a while because Neil texted me about great progress on the more-direct highway. The gravel did slow me, but my slow pace turned out to be attributable to a long, slow, 50km climb! I had anticipated a climb, but much steeper and shorter. Beginning just before St. Louis-du-Ha!-Ha! (yes, really) I had a similarly gradual downhill ride.

On steep climbs I’ve often pondered how civil engineers design our roads. Are they built to maximize fuel economy, to stay within a preferred gradient, to minimize total distance, or to minimize construction cost? I still don’t know the answer, but I know it’s a different answer for railway tracks, where low gradient is emphasized, sometimes at the cost of added distance. Still, it’s great when you’re riding a flat railway bed while the highway rolls about beside you.

I know I’m stuck on about the trail, but I was on it all day and it truly the day’s highlight. It featured great cycling infrastructure with sheltered picnic stops every 10km or so and both campsites and hostels at various points on the route (no RV’s!). There was no highway traffic nearby, good air and relaxing scenery in all directions. It took some willpower not to hang around and pluck ripe raspberries all afternoon from the bushes that lined the path.

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What a lovely trail!

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It featured superb infrastructure and picnic shelters.

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Ripe raspberries everywhere.

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Trailside lake by St. Louis-du-Ha!-Ha!

At the end of the day, I missed a turnoff for Neil’s campsite and found myself nearly in Edmunston. The signage on the trail, excellent on the Québec side, deteriorated approaching New Brunswick and then disappeared altogether after crossing the border. There were no campsites in town, and while a local gas station gave me directions to Camp Iroquois 5km away, I didn’t want to risk leaving town and riding a long distance in the dark. So, I stopped at a hotel that looked like a family business and offered $10 for a patch of grass in the backyard. The owner walked me to the back and said he was so impressed by the trip that I could stay for free.

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Welcome to New Brunswick, land of poor signage (but good hospitality).

Montmagny à Rivière du Loup: 136km (5897km)

11 Aug

I had five flats today! The issue was difficult to diagnose: there was no glass, sliver of metal or even sharp surface of the rim to be found, yet the issue recurred in the same area of my tire near an old puncture. The old puncture isn’t large enough to have left a hole in the inner lining, but the outer rubber has a big gash in it. My current theory is that the gash is large enough for gravel to work itself in. I tried inserting a plastic shim and business card, but these only caused the puncture zone to be shifted laterally.

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Day of flats.

The day wasn’t all frustration, as Route Verte offered constant panoramic views of the St. Lawrence on my left and inshore mountains on my right. I’ll be heading over those hills tomorrow. The route was also peppered with small St. Lawrence towns with elegant churches of the type that have become familiar on this section. I’ll miss the constant cheer and cute little businesses as I head into New Brunswick, but I’m sure new delights will await.

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Scrumptious dépanneur breakfast.

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Lower St. Lawrence River.

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Route Verte separated bike lane.

Around 4pm, after my fourth puncture, Guy and Karen caught up with me. They are two touring cyclists heading along the St. Lawrence to Gaspé who Neil introduced to me yesterday. I was happy to see them, doubly so given that I was applying my last patch! But patches proved to be no match for the tear in the tube I used today. Soon I found myself installing my last spare tube, hoping that it would carry me the remaining 70km to Rivière du Loup, the nearest town big enough to have a bike shop, and also where Neil was camped. I applied duct tape to the interior wall of the tire in the problem area and added a section of tube I cut from one of the dead tubes. I had spent lots of time on flats so I was anxious about arriving by dark, but a pineapple milkshake cheered me up.

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The milkshake starts here…

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…and ends here.

Soon I caught up with Guy and Karen, who rode with me for the rest of the evening. They are a fun couple and I was glad to have the company to cheer me up after so much frustration! Guy is a mechanical engineer working in the biotech industry, and Karen is a massage therapist. We shared stories about touring adventures and enjoyed the prairie-like scenery and a beautiful sunset riding to our common destination. They are both sympathetic about steady state. Neil was waiting at the campsite and the four of us enjoyed some fun social time under the stars before turning in for a late night.

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Guy and Karen.

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St. Lawrence sunset.