There’s nothing like sleeping outdoors. You wake at sunrise, naturally, peacefully. You immediately notice the crisp, raw scent of fresh air and you breathe it in deeply. This invigorates you. There is a depth of human alertness you had been unaware you possessed. You hear birds chirping and breezes blowing.
And buses roaring and cars zooming.
Even still, despite these reminders of urban life, even on one’s tenth-floor balcony in the middle of metropolitan Toronto, out in the open air is a wondrous way to wake. It begs the question: why on Earth would I be sleeping on my balcony? The answer: a preliminary test of my brand new bivy sack. What is a bivy sack, you ask? And what am I testing for, exactly?
Well, first, let me rewind the script a bit.
I had been searching a long time for a bicycle to replace my beloved but stolen Peugeot cruiser. In November of 2014 I finally found one. A matte metallic silver Raleigh. It was the perfect bike because it was simple, only eight speeds, inexpensive, only three hundred dollars, and humbly attractive. A simple machine, through and through. I put the bicycle on layaway and told the nice staff at Cyclepath on the Danforth that I would be back in March to pick it up.
In the months that lapsed between November and my impending bike pick-up, I began to dream and concoct wild ideas about the travels and adventures I could have and do on my soon-to-be-had new bicycle during this coming summer. I had spent my last three summers in France, mainly Paris. But my friends had sold their restaurant where I’d worked for them and now I needed to keep myself occupied in some other way.
My first thought was to ride from my home in Toronto out to Vancouver, British Columbia. I tried to plan routes and read blogs written by people who had done the ride but I kept running into obstacles; some logistical and some simply logical. Not that logic carries a terrible amount of weight in my world, really. For although I decided that riding the more than five thousand kilometers alone to Vancouver was perhaps a bit daunting for my first bike tour ever, the compromise I came up with is still, even by my own skewed standards, a bit nuts.
Passing through twenty-six Canadian cities in five provinces, I have decided to ride my bicycle from Toronto to Charlottetown, P.E.I.
More than four thousand kilometers over fifty days. Brighton, Gananoque, Ottawa, Montréal, Trois-Rivières, Québec City, Lévis, La Pocatière, Edmundston, Woodstock, Fredericton, St. John, Digby, Halifax, Truro, Charlottetown, Moncton, Bathurst, Campbellton, Amqui, Tadoussac, Baie-Saint-Paul, Québec City again, Trois-Rivières again, Montréal again, Cornwall, Kingston, Prince Edward County, and then, last stop, my dad’s house in Whitby.
I still haven’t explained what a bivy sack is. I’m getting there.
I have never done any type of long-distance cycling in my life. I have a background in marathon running but I needed a new drug now. Even though I had come up with this crazy concept of how I would spend my coming summer, I had no idea if I was physically capable of it.
So I started to test and prepare myself.
On Saturday, April 18th, I had plans with my cousin Danny to see the Italian Baroque exhibit at the Art Gallery of Hamilton where we are family members. I was also to meet his new girlfriend Krissie. It was supposed to be a beautiful day and I wasn’t in any rush and it was only eighty kilometers from my doorstep to the gallery entrance, so I told him: I’m riding my bike. I had no idea if eighty kilometers for a first long ride ever was even possible. But there was only one way to find out.
It took me four hours seventeen minutes. I turned up, met them at the pub across from the gallery, had a double vodka soda, locked my bike up, and off we three went to see the exhibit.
Fait accompli. (I took the GO train home the next day.)
Now what I needed to know was if I could do consecutive days of long rides. My dad had invited my sister and me over to his and Helen’s house for a family night of wings and lasagna and euchre and “soda pops” on Saturday, May 9th. My front doorstep to his makes fifty kilometres. He said we were welcome any time after two in the afternoon. So I called him up and told him: I’m riding my bike.
It took me three hours four minutes. I devoured Helen’s perfect lasagna and my dad’s hot and tasty wings! I drank wine and at one in the morning I told my sister we should really go to sleep!
The next morning, we had leftover lasagna and wings for breakfast! We even played a bit more euchre. Then at about eleven, I began the fifty kilometer trek back.
It took me three hours fourteen minutes. Doing two consecutive days of a mere fifty kilometres was not only reasonable but easy. I needed further testing.
I have a very dear friend named Timo who lives in London, Ontario. I hadn’t seen him in four years. We had made long overdue plans for me to come visit him on Saturday, May 16th. I also have a sweet aunt, only eight years older than me is more like a cousin, who also lives in London. I looked to find a half way point. Paris, Ontario. I emailed my aunt and Timo. I told them: I’m riding my bike. And with saddle bags packed for a four-day, three hundred sixty kilometre excursion, I set off.
On Friday, May 15th, I rode one hundred five kilometres from Toronto to Paris in the cool temperatures, intermittent rain, and the last forty kilometres in the pitch black darkness! I finally arrived to the Davidson Motel in Paris just after midnight.
It took me five hours twenty-nine minutes.
The next morning, Saturday, May 16th, I set off for the second part of the journey: Paris to London. It was an eighty kilometre trip.
It took me five hours and four minutes. My Aunt Amy welcomed me into her beautiful home and gorgeous garden backyard. We talked, had beverages, and enjoyed the best barbecued steaks I have ever had: charred on the outside and blue on the inside. Perrrrrrfect! She served this with corn on the cob, baked potato, melted butter, sour cream, and fresh cut chives from her own garden.
The next morning, Sunday, May 17th, I met up with my dear friend Timo. We ate a hearty breakfast and then headed to a pub. He had a few beers while I enjoyed three glasses of what we shall henceforth refer to as “Fancy Red Gatorade.” More specifically, I had an eight ounce, then a five ounce (denial), then an eight ounce (acceptance). Then I set off for the trip back to Paris.
It took me three hours and fifty-six minutes. I listened to an oldies channel on Songza the whole ride. It was heavenly.
The next morning, Monday, May 18th, I set out for the final leg of the trip. I rode seventy-one kilometres then decided it was getting late and to save time, since I had things I needed to do before work the next morning, I would take the GO train from Oakville. Anyway, I had learned what I needed to learn; that yes, I was capable of riding consecutive days of eighty to one hundred kilometres per day. My legs were perhaps slightly tender but barely. The trip to Charlottetown was looking good!
I haven’t forgotten about the bivy sack. Explanation dangerously close to delivery.
I’m not rich. There is no way I can stay in a motel for each of the fifty plus nights of my East Coast bike excursion. Nor do I want to. I want to simulate as close as possible my secret desire to return to simpler times and “live off the land.” In short, I want to camp the nights as much as possible. (Where necessary, I will couchsurf, Airbnb, or stay in a motel.) But not only am I not a cyclist, I’m not an experienced camper! So I will need to practice this part, too.
I went to Mountain Equipment Coop on King Street and bought a bivy sack. Here’s that explanation you may have been waiting for or perhaps have googled already. A bivy sack is basically a sleeping bag-sized waterproof tent. It rolls up into about the size of a large Thermos. It is lightweight and ideal for bike travel. On Saturday, May 23rd, I bought one. I was eager to try it out immediately but it was already late and I needed to plan properly and think about safety. In the end, I settled on this: I practiced assembling and disassembling it inside my apartment. And then, to practice what I might reasonably need for warmth and comfort, I assembled it on my balcony and, with a low temperature of nine degrees Celsius, I slept in my sleeping bag, in the bivy sack, on the concrete floor of my balcony.
I slept like a baby.
Next weekend, Saturday, May 30th, I am riding my bike to my dear Aunt Gisèle’s house in Niagara Falls. It is a one hundred thirty-five kilometre journey. My cousin Danny (her son) and Krissie will be there, too! Then on Sunday the 31st I will make the same trip home. I probably won’t sleep outdoors in my bivy sack on Saturday but I will pack it and my sleeping bag to get a feel for the weight I will be carrying for the East Coast trip.
My apartment is rented out for seven weeks this summer beginning Monday, June 29th. So that is my departure date for the East Coast tour. I still have five weeks to test, experiment and prepare. I am both stupendously excited and scared to death. My biggest fear is being a woman alone camping at night. But. I believe in the goodness of human beings and I can’t live life hiding under a rock.