Reflections on traveling by bike

A year ago today, Guillaume and I bumbled awkwardly down Vancouver’s 6th Avenue toward Argentina. It was the first day of fall. That morning I had woken to the sound of rain falling on my roof like a stream of nails.

Guillaume finished assembling his bicycle on my front steps and I patted my dog for the last time. 

We rode two blocks, stopping at an intersection. A bicycle commuter rode up behind us and asked, curiously - “Where are you two going?” We responded - “Argentina!” 

We had similar reasons for leaving Vancouver. I was a recent graduate, impatient with Vancouver eating its young and eroding its community with its soaring cost of living and own narcissism. We put aside thoughts of family and stability, girlfriends and ski seasons. We left with little concern for the roads’ asperity or challenges ahead. 

The allure of the Pan American road was always obvious to Guillaume and me. It was without a doubt a vast and quixotic idea to bike to the end of the earth, through a continuous stretch of highway which would take us through the geographical and cultural landscapes of two continents. But there was more to this: we felt a responsibility to deliver a different narrative about a world we considered our backyard. We wanted to see the 'fly over country,' the places in between, to fill these in with texture, context and meaning. The bicycles would provide the perfect window. 

Cannon Beach, Oregon

It’s surprising how low-key it all was. We had no sponsors and little money. There were no road guides or maps. We had no prior experience biking over 30km, and our bikes were built on my doorstep on the day of departure. Guillaume dubbed the trip “Two Dudes on Bikes,” and would reflect this sentiment riding the entire way in flip-flops, overgrown hair and ripped T-Shirts. We decided that the road would be the great teacher for our ineptitude, that we couldn’t control everything, that we’d learn to be “Easy Riders.”

For two individuals born to winter, we chased a summer. Marked first by a three-week episode of Northwest rain storms, it evolved into moderate Californian coastal breezes, the dry heat of the Baja desert, and the blistering sweat and humidity throughout the tropics.

Back in Vancouver, we often talk about the end of our trip cogently: we made the right choice to return to Canada, that we can always go back, that it’s important not to live as nostalgists, to move on. At night five months later I find myself insomniac, recounting memory glimpses, an inventory of experiences of everyday minutiae. Our days are no longer marked with deprivation, long rides, salsa music, stray dogs biting our heels, military checkpoints, tarantulas, iguanas and camping, but rather our own countries’ leisure and wealth. No longer do we bath in rivers and gas station bathroom sinks. 

We finished the bicycle trip when we found ourselves broke and dreading the miles ahead. Guillaume wanted to surf and continue south, I wanted to be alone. We ended up in the small Ecuadorian coastal town of Canoa; Guillaume surfed, I read Jack Kerouac’s tales of travelers existentialism in the corner of a bar. I was looking in the wrong places for a voice of sobriety and reason, uninspired by Kerouac, the tall-tale telling expats and the cocaine surf bums. I wallowed, feeling the special type of guilty insecurity reserved for low and mixed up middle class males who don’t know what to do with their relatively unfractured lives. I decided to leave Canoa, telling my good friend that we might meet up in a month in the south, in Brazil, maybe in Argentina. Secretly I knew this was this trips last goodbye. 

I took the night bus back to Quito and decided to retrace my steps from a past journey. I would gather some traction, the journey would become conclusive but expectations can be the most nasty desperate of things. I went from town to town, midnight bus to midnight bus watching the Andean night pass through condensed windows, rising later over the mountains like it was backlit for a movie shot. I finished my journey in Cuenca, in the far south of the country, throwing up in a hostel room before being rushed to an Ecuadorian military hospital. 

Somewhere within the incomprehensible and unimaginable Spanish diagnosis, I understood I had contaminated blood and an infected appendix. My brother had had his appendix removed one year prior when it became highly malignant; after it burst he spent two weeks in the hospital as the resident ‘tender tots,’ a sarcastic nickname given to my 6 foot-4-inch, pale, immobile brother by a nurse.  Now it was my turn to be a “tender tots.”

I was wheeled into a military ambulance alongside a Colombian mother and her young daughter, who had slipped on a passenger bus. The ambulance siren blared uselessly in a traffic jam as the sergeant driver tapped the wheel to rhythmic radio salsa and made small talk with our nurse. 

In the surgical ward I watched the doctors gloom over an American medical buyers guide, talking like children waiting for toys to arrive in Spanish medical lingo. I always imagined doctors performing surgery to Bach’s cello suites. I was put to sleep to “Ice Ice Baby.”

I woke up the next morning minus an appendix, plus three scars and a shaved abdomen, sitting in a private room tangled in an I.V., watching it drip and hearing the monitor beep. With an excess of time, I watched strangers wheeled into dark corridors by indifferent chatty nurses, I counted the ceiling tiles, I watched The Simpson’s in Spanish. I wanted to send a merciful email or call my mother who is hardwired with a motherly catastrophic imagination, and whom I left on the previous days cliff hanger phone call - “mom I’m not feeling well, I need to go to the hospital.” Supportive friends from my hostel came and visited, three recent strangers who had adopted the role of family - Martha my Ecuadorian mother, Laura my hip New Yorker sister and Kenny - a benign fatherly expat in a denim jacket who said things like, “how you feeling sport?” 

It was my last step on a long journey, and in the next days I flew home aboard the midnight plane, trying to imagine the familiar dark landscape below which we cycled for seven months. In eleven hours I was in Canada, watching airport televisions play Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield’s space shot music video of David Bowie. Sick and jet lagged, I had somehow wound up in my own “space oddity.”

Benjamin Button said it best - “It’s a funny thing about comin’ home. Looks the same, smells the same, feels the same. You’ll realize what’s changed is you.”

One month after deciding to end our bicycle trip in Ecuador, I asked Guillaume how he felt to be home. He replied despondently, “I feel at home on my bicycle seat.”

We felt like animals pacing in a cage that summer, longing for travel and the unknown, torn between these two places - Wanderlust, and Canada. We spent a great deal of time trying to reconcile the two, but even in Vancouver we felt like refugees, somewhat restless and unmoored. 

For me, I wanted things to be normal again - but the map at ‘home’ is never charted. 

Now, our conversations with people rely on scripted platitudes, jokes and cliques, while I often dread telling the story of our recent escapades, reducing our eight months on bicycles to the manageable domaine of “it was fun.” I try to elaborate on risk, what we ate, where we camped, our robbery. I listen to the questions people undoubtably have about how we survived Mexico’s drug violence without begrudging them. The most difficult thing is to reflect on our experience - then and now - and to give some coherent conclusive shape to it.

It’s still like living in an aquarium, the rest of the world moving at a different pace and time.

I worry that my inventory of experiences are fading from memory as my life is now filtered by Google coloured glass and the ho-hum five o’clock news. 

I miss the reckless abandonment, but mostly I miss the overwhelming generosity of everyone we met - directions, kind words, a family who sailed us across the Sea of Cortez, an American firefighter and his girlfriend lending us a bed when I was sick, giving us $200.00 for a rainy day in a bleak and portentous place. Our trip was a kind of tonic to the narrative of an idle, stupid, ignorant and cruel world. 

It’s difficult to explain everything bicycle touring taught me, without sounding awkward, insincere or ridiculous.

Our goal go “far, far away” simply changed, and as tantalizing as our eight months on bicycles was, sometimes what we're looking for was at home the entire time. Today, we're almost as far from the Andes as is possible, and ‘almost’ is ok. We worked together this summer as high rise window cleaners. Now Guillaume is studying programing. I am studying documentary film making.

But in the end, a part of us will always be two dudes on bikes.

This post is dedicated Guillaume Vassas, best buddy and cyclist extraordinaire.