Even though I have a crappy sense of direction, I’ve always managed to find my way home. There was a time when I never set out to explore without a compass and map. Ideally, I’d have a mitt full of air photos in one hand and a grease pencil in the other too. Now, I often set out with my compass, a map, and a GPS of some kind. With modern tools and by paying attention to primal clues, like wind, sun and topography, I can navigate. No problem. Take the tools away, I would probably spend an inordinate amount of time lost. Even so, it took the twist in life that came with this bike ride of ours for me to discover that my innate sense of direction is probably better than I’ve been giving myself credit for.
I’m awe stuck when I travel with people who have what I believe is a strong innate sense of direction, the kind I clearly don’t have. They negotiate their way with an evolutionary connection to the great migrations of sockeye salmon, humpback whales, Arctic terns, Monarch butterflies, and a plenitude of other species. Several of my friends, including my love, Lothar, are connected to their environment in a way that helps them to find their way even in the most challenging of conditions, like through fog or in darkness. I’ve openly marveled and secretly yearned for an innate sense of direction.
When we were in Florida I knew I was heading home.
At first, I thought I felt like I was heading home because we were riding through expansive conifer forest, similar to yet very different from forests near where I live. For two long days and part of another, we were riding through relatively quiet and peaceful forest, underscoring the intensity of the urban canyons, suburban sprawl, and tourist facades that we’d been riding through for much of the last three months. But then I realized that we were indeed getting closer to home. My shadow told me so.
We’d been travelling in the way that I like to do a day, a week, or a month of fieldwork or other adventures, by heading out one way and then looping around to get back to home or camp, as opposed to returning the same route. I like travelling this way because I never know what kind of wonderful surprises I might encounter along the way. I often bump into something interesting to satisfy my curiosity.
So there I was in the forests of Florida, feeling like I’d done the better part of a loop. I felt like I was on my way back home. It was hard for me to come to terms with the fact that, instead of heading home, we would soon be turning away, again. Driven by the sun, the feeling was powerful and it stuck with me for weeks.
The sun has been with us for most of our ride, thus far. In fact, we’ve had surprisingly little rain. From June to September we were mostly heading east. For much of this time, we were riding through a heat wave, the sun beating down on my right side, my shadow often dancing along on my left side. Lothar developed a wonderful tan-no-tan pattern on the sunny-sides and shadow-sides of the raised veins on his right arm.
Then we turned right when we hit the east coast. From October into January, we were often riding with low angle sun in our eyes, sometimes making it difficult for me to see and, I worried, for drivers heading our way to see us. I had a hard time keeping my nose from burning.
In mid-January, we turned right, again to cross Florida and then make our way along the Gulf Coast. My shadow was spending more time dancing alongside me on the right side of my bike. That’s when I started feeling like I was heading home.
By the time we reached the end of our ride in Texas, the last of the U.S.A. states we’d travel on this journey, we had ridden through summer, fall, and winter, and into spring, just over nine months. I was feeling like a loose end. Home was on my mind. Soon we’d be heading south again, taking me even further away. It was time to reflect and take stock of the situation.
When I rolled out of our driveway, I was setting out on a bicycle adventure. But then one day, when I was beating my way through vehicle traffic in South Carolina, I connected with reality. I’m on a journey by bicycle. On completing our ride through Canada and the U.S.A., I can easily lump my journey into three distinct phases.
At first, bicycle touring was new to me. I was in training. I traversed North America, like skipping stones over water, only in reverse. Every time I felt I was headed for a hard landing, kind people stepped in to soften it, just enough for me to soar, a little bit further and a hint smoother, to the next challenge.
We travelled from British Columbia through to Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba; then we headed down into Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan to travel on the south side of Lake Superior; and then we travelled through Ontario, Quebec, Prince Edward Island, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Maine. We travelled mostly by bike with some sections by hitch biking and train. Heavy frosts motivated us to hop on the bus from Brunswick, Maine, to Boston, Massachusetts.
For the most part, I found the riding conditions were relatively easy, although there were hairy sections of roads that we travelled on too. Occasionally, the heat was extremely challenging. With all of my senses, I experienced a thread of the continent, all the while thinking about and reflecting on ecology, social-ecological connections, and climate change, learning and building on my interests with the hope of collaborating with and supporting others in better problem solving in these challenging arenas.
The biggest surprises for me was just how interested and excited people were about what we were doing and the many people that reached out to us to help us along the way (a story in itself for another post).
By the time we hopped on a train in Brunswick, Maine, I was feeling stronger and wiser.
Next, we rode down the east coast of America from Providence, Rhode Island, where we got off the train; through Connecticut; and then onto Long Island and into the heart of New York City, New York. The human population density exploded; natural spaces, species, and ecosystems dwindled, and, intermittently, stress-related road rage reared its ugly head.
I was threading my way through landscapes that often battered my senses. Yet we were meeting lots of people who reached out to us and helped us, like stepping-stones supporting me along the way.
In New York, we got on a bus to Washington, DC, so that I could attend a Policy Sciences Institute, a three-day event held at the World Bank. A few years ago, I discovered the policy sciences, a process for “integrating knowledge and practice to advance human dignity for all.” Both of the institutes that I attended previously were rejuvenating and inspiring. And this one followed suit, filling my mind and lifting my spirits.
The policy sciences are an approach to understanding and solving problems.
Whether the problems are local, regional, international, or planetary, the policy sciences provide an integrated and comprehensive set of procedures for addressing them in ways that help to clarify and secure the common interest. Helping people make better decisions is the central objective of the policy sciences, and the fundamental goal is to foster a commonwealth of human dignity for all.
Most museums are free in Washington. I had no idea. We spent several days going through numerous museums, a mind boggling venture. I left Washington, DC with the strength to keep going, thanks in a large part to the many policy scientists that share similar interests and desires for the wellbeing of humanity.
Through Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida, more people, species, and ecosystems were slipping through the cracks. The southern hospitality was remarkable but I also feel an undercurrent of fear and anger much stronger than I’ve ever experienced. I was just managing to keep my head above water, buoyed up here and there by the many kind people we encountered along the way. I was grasping for hope and searching for perspective. I cried a lot, sometimes in response to experiences that terrified me, all of them while riding my bike, and other times in response to the pain and suffering of others and the dismal states of environments. Curiosity kept me going.
I needed to remind myself that my experience and perspective is different from the people around me. Lothar and I just rode our bikes of the most densely populated states in the U.S.A., New York and Florida with almost 20 million people in each. My home country, Canada, has just over 35 million people. My home province, British Columbia, has 4.6 million people. My hometown, Smithers, has just over 5,000 people. My perspective has also changed a lot since I left home including a better understanding of the challenges that humanity faces with growth in human population and associated use of and effects on ecological and environmental ‘goods’ and ‘services.’ I’ve been stockpiling questions to follow up on and stories about our experiences to write about. Often I’ve felt overwhelmed, like we’re travelling too fast. Even though we’re travelling at a rate that is physically easy, my mind and spirit can’t absorb and process my experiences fast enough.
I thought I was heading out on a bicycle touring adventure. For most of my life, I’ve been drawn to the backcountry, often venturing in the wildest of spaces. I’ve mostly worked and played in my backyard: British Columbia, Yukon, and Alaska. There’s enough diversity and beauty in the land and waterways up there to captivate me for a lifetime. Now, it’s clear to me that I’m on bicycle journey, one that makes my treasured times and spaces feel even more precious. As I climb higher, my viewpoint expands and evolves in ways that I could not have imagined. It will take time for me to absorb and process what I’ve been experiencing and regain my balance.
Next, we needed to decide where and how we would ride into Mexico, turning away from home again. Despite searching, I couldn’t find any wise ideas for crossing into Mexico by bicycle. I took lack of good news as more evidence that travelling in the border region of Mexico and U.S.A. was going to be a hazardous venture. But drawing on our experiences thus far, I trusted that we’d connect with more good people as we travelled through this region to help us formulate a plan as we go.
I bet I’ll go through more phases in this journey we’re on, each with lots in common with the others but also important aspects that will be unique in feel and lessons learned. As we travel along, our environment is constantly changing. I’m evolving too, hopefully for the better.
I miss home. I am inspired by the diversity, tenacity and resilience of our community. By the time I get back, Smithers will probably have evolved too. But it will still be the same supportive, engaged and active community that I left. I know can count on it.