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