Bicycle Field Notes 5: Riding the Farewell–Welcome Wave Train

My home is in Smithers, a small community that is tucked into the eastern slopes of the coast mountains in the upper reaches of the Skeena River watershed in northwestern British Columbia. We’re about 350 km (218 miles), by road, east of the coastal community of Prince Rupert at the mouth of the Skeena River on the Pacific Ocean. I know from experience that the social dynamics of our community extend all the way down the Bulkley River valley and into Skeena River valley, connected by fishing, backcountry skiing, whitewater rafting and kayaking, and more. But I didn’t fully appreciate how far the social connections of our community extended inland until Lothar and I set out on our bicycles to head east, far from home.

For almost a week and over 400 km (249 miles), many friends drove by, some stopping and then piling out of their vehicles to say good-bye and others casting their greetings by honking and waving, all the way to Prince George. Thankfully, no one made us stop on an uphill because way back then we probably would have had to walk to the top before we could get started again.

Our interactions with people who are in some way connected to us or other people we know in our community carried on for quite some distance east of Prince George too.

Riding my bicycle through our backyard made me realize that people in our small community have connections with others that extend up and out of the Bulkley Valley, over the Interior Plateau, and up into the Rocky Mountains, all the way to our neighbouring province, Alberta.

 

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This scene, my last look back as we rode away from home, is etched in my mind.

 

In the almost nine months that we have been on the road since we ventured out from home, I’ve learned a lot about farewells and welcomes.

Obviously there are innumerable ways to say farewell and welcome, given how many languages there are globally, but what I didn’t realize until this trip is how deeply regional culture flows into the spirit of departures, much more so than in meetings. My first hint was in Quebec but it wasn’t until we reached Virginia, halfway down the east coast of the U.S.A., that I fully engaged with what was going on. I wish I had picked up on it earlier because I’m sure that there’s much that I’ve missed. Here’s a bit of what I’ve picked up on so far.

 

British Columbia:

As I recall, good luck was the farewell of choice in B.C.

 

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We met Ben at the Slims Creek rest area and then again in McBride, ready with offers to give us a hand if we needed it. Here he is demonstrating to Lothar his passion for parasailing. It turns out Ben knows some of our flying friends from Smithers, 580 km (360 miles) back down the road.

 

Quebec:

People sent us off with “bon voyage” (good voyage) or, much more commonly, “bon courage” (good courage) in Quebec. I was bemused by how far people would cast “bon courage” our way. Some of the more entertaining farewells were called out from a farmer working in a field, a guy scooting around atop his John Deere lawn mower, and from various people drinking wine, or sometimes beer, on their front porch. But my most cherished farewell came from four elderly ladies in wide brimmed hats who were sitting in the garden for tea, table fully adorned; “bon courage!” they yelled from far across the road, waving vigorously. At first, I thought “bon courage” was a bit over the top but by the time we left it was comforting. When time is of the essence, people in Quebec hone in on what’s important: a proper farewell.

 

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Quebecois radiate joi de vive (joy of life). Reynald waved Lothar into his driveway, chattering away in French (which Lothar could only understand snippets of) and pointing at the sign “Cyclists, Free Camping, 1 Night, on the river.” With pleasant surprise, we landed in the stunning backyard of our welcoming hosts on the southern shore of the Saint Lawrence where the river mingles with the sea.
Southeastern U.S.A.:

Washington, DC, was the first place that I noticed people saying “stay safe” and as we travelled further down the east coast of America it became the norm. At first, I thought maybe the farewell highlighted people’s concern about the most insane riding conditions we’d encountered, thus far. But when riding got much safer due to Florida’s extensive network of bike lanes and trails and “stay safe” continued, I wondered some more.

In the southeastern U.S.A., we rode in and out of wealthier neighborhoods, many hidden and secured behind gates, and poorer neighborhoods, many exposed and intensively patrolled by enforcement agencies. I wondered if fear of strangers was an influencing factor.

Regardless, “stay safe” started falling flat on me given the relatively dangerous riding conditions we were riding in and, occasionally, the nasty drivers interacting with us, in Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina, and in Georgia, to a lesser extent. By the time we reached Florida, I was done with “stay safe.”

 

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We loved visiting the museums (the vast majority are free) and monuments in Washington, DC. Interestingly, high security, complete with x-ray machines, security personnel, vehicle motorcades, and perpetual sirens that flooded our senses, appears to be a social norm that locals hardly notice.

 

Texas:

As soon as we crossed into Texas I heard the first “be careful” farewell that I picked up on. We stopped at a gas station in Port Author, Texas to talk to some people who were working at the Sabine Pass Liquid Natural Gas export plant, just across the bridge in Louisiana. We were showered with “be careful” as we rolled out. We continued to hear these words a lot over the course of our ride through southeastern Texas.

I wondered if the hazardous nature of working in the oil and gas, and perhaps ranching, industries might have influenced the prevalence of these words.

 

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Relative to what we’d just been through, riding was great in Texas. Frequently, traffic was heavy with lots of industrial vehicles of various shapes and sizes but wide paved shoulders were common. People told us that the space is to provide refuge for motorists with vehicle problems as opposed to a safer travel route for cyclists. We greatly appreciated the gesture anyways!

 

Circling back to the “good luck” of home:

I now wonder if “good luck” in the parts of western Canada that we rode through might have something to do with the nature of settlers in conditions where more adventurous and accepting attitudes around life and work would have probably been beneficial for achieving success (and a piece of mind). While First Nations have lived here since time immemorial, a relatively large proportion of the people that live in this area are relatively recently settled, as compared to eastern Canada and U.S.A. Some westerners have recently moved from other countries and but even more have moved across the continent in successive generations. To underscore this point Saint Augustine (a beautiful city), Florida, was the oldest European established community that we rode through (founded in 1565) and many of the British Colombian communities that we rode through are just reaching their centennials. Smithereens celebrated their centennial in 2013 (founded in 1913). I wonder how the Wet’suwet’en, the First Nation whose traditional territory includes the Bulkley River, say farewell?

 

The clock tower on the corner of Main Street and Second Avenue, Smithers BC
The clock tower on the corner of Main Street and Second Avenue, Smithers BC.

 

So what farewell fits best for bicycling nomads?

Lothar and I have both connected with “bon courage.” These days, sending a fellow cyclist off with “good courage” feels like the right way to depart. I suspect my settling into this farewell has a lot to do with unsettled feelings that I developed while traveling on the route that we took down the coast of southeastern U.S.A. Riding along the Gulf Coast was a lot easier because we frequently found bike lanes or less traffic on our route and drivers were more courteous, overall. But the near perfect fit of “bon courage” also makes me wonder if the roots of this farewell are in the nomadic livelihoods of the coureur de bois, French Canadian and Métis fur trappers, renowned for their courageous adventures delving into territories and environments unfamiliar to them.

 

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Heading into our the final leg of our travels with Justin and Nick: We spent two rest days and three riding days with these energetic young men, the longest time by far that we’ve had with other riders yet. We departed ways with Lothar and I trending for Corpus Christi and Justin and Nick for Austin. They’re on a big tour of the US with the next legs of their journey yet to be determined.

I regret not connecting earlier with the deeper messages that I think the farewell–welcome wave train carried, as we rode through it. But the hints that I’ve gleaned spark my curiosity.

Words of welcome seem to be similar, or parallel, within the regions that we’ve been through, at least not consistently different enough for me to notice patterns. But I still have lots of great stories about welcomes to come in a later post. In contrast, words of farewell seem to say a lot about a regional culture, what exactly I’m not sure but the words people tend to use sure trigger my imagination to find meanings that might fit with my experiences.

As we pedal through Mexico cultures and environments, and the ecosystems within, will change again and again too. We’re getting lots of reports from cyclists’ about how much they’ve enjoyed the diversity of Mexico. They’re also reporting that drivers are courteous, overall. Good news!

Best of all, I’m pretty sure there’s lots more interesting experiences to be had riding the farewell–welcome wave train as we pedal on.

10 Responses

  1. Rosamund Pojar
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    Bon Courage Debbie and Lothar from Rosamund and Jim

  2. Deb Wellwood
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    Why thank you, you two. I wish I had you with me…you’d be much more fun than Google botany..ornithology. Happy winter up there.
    Deb

  3. Karen Diemert
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    Bon Courage Deb and Lothar – you certainly have lots of it. Continue to enjoy. Hugs from Karen and Bruce

  4. Doug Hughes
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    Wow …I am sitting here in Bocas town Panama reading your experiences ….I can’t help but smile …what an adventure you are on ….!keep those posts coming

  5. Deb Wellwood
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    Thanks Karen!

  6. Deb Wellwood
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    Thanks Doug! I’ll do my best. I can’t wait to loop these stories back to you.

    My plan is to start my province and state posts so that they coincide with the one year anniversary of being there. The ones I’ve been post along the way are Field Notes. I’m thinking of calling the sequential overviews of our adventure “Aerial Views.” These will be based on my journal entries and photos of our travels with musings about local ecology, culture, economics, history etc. I’ll start with getting reading to go in April. New Brunswick will be in October! I’ve been writing them as we travel but I didn’t had the time (or focus…I was a bit in survival mode) to post earlier. But I’m keen to keep them true to where I was in the moment.

  7. Vivian
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    Hi Deb!

    It’s Vivian from Canada, do you have a blog on how to prep your bike for a long journey? What to bring, how to set your bike up, the bare essentials? Thanks a bunch 🙂 You INSPIRE ME SOOO MUCH

  8. Danny Walden
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    Wonderful musings! My favorite: Ciao! “Adios” seems to have been forgotten in most of South America. And my favorite email sign off (which I may have sent to you previously): Wishing you tailwinds!

  9. Deb Wellwood
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    Thanks Danny. I can’t wait to hear more changes as we ride along. So far in Mexico, we’ve been hearing Feliz Viaje (Happy Travels) and probably some other sayings that we’re not picking up on yet because we’re in Kindergarten when it comes to Spanish! I hope we catch up soon. You must be near Ushuaia. Ciao.

  10. Deb Wellwood
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    Hi Vivian,

    Thank you! First, I am sorry for the delay in responding. We’re going through big transitions here in Mexico so life has been a bit of a roller coaster the last couple weeks. We’ve had kind and generous folks helping us all along the way so I’m finally feeling like my feet are back on solid ground. I’ll see what I can pull together for you in a post to come soon. In the meantime, I highly recommend starting with:

    1. Crazy Guy on a Bike where many people post great information in personal blogs for cycling at https://www.crazyguyonabike.com/
    This is a great resource, in part because I think there is a lot of diversity in how people travel. So what works for one person or group might not be the best for others. I think you will find much information that would be of interest to you.

    2. Warm Showers where you can join a community of cyclist working together to host and be hosted at https://www.warmshowers.org/
    This was a great resource for Lothar and me because it gave us a chance to host numerous cyclists. Little did they know that they would be pelleted with questions when they arrived. Hosting cyclists in not only a great way to meet interesting people, it’s also a way to learn from them about what worked and didn’t work for them and why so that you can make a better informed decision about what might work best for you. And when you get your trip underway, you will have many opportunities for great places to stay and wonderful people to connect with.

    I’m excited that you are keen to get going. I think the hardest part for me was just getting out the door.

    More soon,

    Deb

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