Escaping in North America

John Ireton

Why did you decide to cycle across Canada?

I think it was a number of different things which triggered my travel plans. I was really exhausted with working in London. I was also finally at the end of my studies and I was lacking a bit of direction in my life and career. This combination of things just had me looking for an exit anywhere I could find one. I have dual citizenship with Canada and Ireland, so Canada has always been on my list of places to go and see.

What made you choose cycling over backpacking or over-landing in a vehicle?

I struggled with this decision for a while because I previously didn’t have a bike and really didn’t like cycling! I really enjoyed walking, I used to say to my cyclist friends that I never got a “flat shoe” but any time I ride a bike I end up with a flat tire! But the scale of the trip I was imagining was too big to walk. No matter how much I liked to walk there is no denying it is the slow option. Driving on the other hand seemed too fast so unless I was planning to try the worlds longest skateboard trip, cycling was really the best option. 

Why do the trip alone?

This was more to do with timing. I felt that I had reached my limit of working full time and was willing to do anything to get away from the city. I did ask a good friend of mine to come and join me but financially it wasn’t possible especially within the time frame I had given myself to get going. In hindsight I might have been somewhat unbearable in the first few weeks because I was so nervous and very strict with myself. But in the second and third month some company would have been nice.

Of course I did meet a lot of really interesting people along the way. About 3 days before I reached Quebec city I met another cycle tourer called Remi. He was a French cabinet maker who had just spent a month cycling a difficult coastal route on his own. It was real pleasure to have someone to cycle with for a while. His English was as good as my French (not great) so we could communicate about 70% of the time. His casual and relaxed attitude helped me see how to take things less seriously. He showed me all the small breweries on the route as well as good places to wild camp.

How much time was there between deciding to do it and actually leaving?

I think I thought of the idea in the Autumn of 2016 and really allowed it to stew in my head for several months before starting to take it seriously. I spent a lot of time just thinking of scenarios and potential problems. I flew off from London on July 2nd 2017 

How did your family and friends react when you told them?

My parents were noticeably quiet the first few times I mentioned it, bearing in mind I didn’t even own a bike at that stage, so rather than tell me I’m crazy, I think they just didn’t know what to say! Closer to the leaving date however they became the most supportive after I confided in them that it had become exhausting trying to explain myself to people, who just could not understand my motivations. 

Continuous explaining to sceptical people is a serious energy drain and leaves you with lots of self doubt. I would advise anyone who is planning a large trip to accept that lots of people are just never going to understand. You don’t need to change their minds.

How did you decide upon the route?

There were a few key sights I wanted to see on my trip including Toronto; where my sister lives, Chicago as a world class metropolis and Vancouver – a place I had considered moving to. This meant my route would be East to West starting in Newfoundland on the Atlantic Coast. A consequence of this was that I would be facing into the trade winds the entire journey, which never stopped; from start to finish I had strong head wind. One huge advantage of the route was that I didn’t face any serious hills until the Rocky mountains at very end. By this stage I was much more prepared for big hills. If I had attempted this in the other direction I don’t think I would have lasted 2 weeks.

What kind of stuff did you pack?

My bike was a “Pinnacle Akrose”, which I bought it for 300£ second hand online 3 months before my trip. I managed to fully load it with two rear panniers and rack-pack across them on top. At the front I had a handlebar bag as well as a crossbar bag. I never did an inventory of all my gear but I felt like I had covered everything I could think of. On my very first day I had a small panic because I physically couldn’t lift my bike, it was so heavy. Thankfully cycling it was a much easier task.

A rough list of things would have included my camping gear [one-man tent, sleeping bag, sleeping mat] as well as cooking gear [one pot with stove and a small jar of spices] enough clothes to last me a week, and enough food to last 2 or 3 days. I regularly stocked up on snacks and energy drinks and topped up my water as much as possible [approx. 3 liters]. It was easy to forget to snack and I found that whenever I was depressed, exhausted or just anxious about the journey ahead, it was inevitably because I hadn’t eaten enough. Sure enough, as soon as I had eaten, my spirits rose and everything got better.

I got accustomed to knocking on doors asking for a water refills in the midday sun. Everyone I met was very helpful and friendly.

What was the most essential piece of gear

Camping for 3 months had a lot of potential for sleepless/ restless nights, but the inflatable pillow I brought with me made everything so much better. It was such a comfort I even managed to sleep through my alarm some mornings just to enjoy it a bit more.

What was the favourite part?

A lot of people asked me when I came back if the trip was “fun” and I couldn’t really say that it was “fun” in the usual sense of the word. I didn’t have any nights out or any fancy meals. The sense of peacefulness was what I felt more than anything else. Coming from long exhausting hours in London City centre to being on sunny countryside roads for 8 hours a day just meant I had a lot less buzzing around in my head. I didn’t listen to music and only sometimes would have a song in my head. I just allowed my head to empty of any thoughts about my career and future. I was mostly focused on where I was going on the day. 

Occasionally I would be completely alone on the road surrounded by fields of beans and see very impressive skies with rolling grey clouds above and just stand and watch them in silence. These moments meant the most to me. 

Were there any scary moments during the trip?

Cycling up into the Rocky Mountains on the hard shoulder of the Trans Canada Highway was a fairly nerve wrecking experience. A lot of enormous articulated trucks drive this route and can squeeze corners as they go around them. One particularly close call I remember, was going uphill around a corner with a concrete wall on my right and truck after truck flying past me on my left. Due to the weight of my bike if I stopped it would be difficult to push myself off and get moving again so it was safer to keep moving despite my slow pace. As I rounded the corner a truck flew past and cut right across the hard shoulder I was on, if I had been 5 meters further ahead I would have easily been pulled into its back wheels.

Further toward the top of the pass I had 5 tunnels to go through. Because of the darkness I was afraid any cars or trucks might not see me going so slowly. After each tunnel I took a 5 minute break on the side of the road before moving on. .

But the most scary bit happened toward the very end of the trip. One morning I didn’t have enough breakfast with me so I decided to pick something  up on the way. On a long stretching corner of the road I saw a petrol station advertising breakfast so I quickly indicated, looked over my shoulder and pulled across the road to cross. Before I had any time to think, a motorcycle came up fast behind me smashing into my right pannier, sending me flying up into the air and my bike across the road. The contents of my handlebar bag were thrown across the two lanes. I had no idea what had happened. The motorcycle came off the road onto a nearby patch of grass where the driver called out in pain. Within what seemed like an instant, there was an ambulance and police at the scene. The motorcycle driver was taken away and everything was tidied up and cleared. Thankfully no-one was seriously injured.

What surprised me most about this incident, was how my spirits stayed high. After so long on the road all I could think about was getting back to cycling. The disappointing thing was that my bike was unrepairable. As silly as it sounds I had developed a fondness for it over the past months. I had no one to talk to most of the time so I complained to it going up steep hills or through heavy rain. I would even apologise for leaving it out in the rain when I was in my tent.

Over the following two weeks thanks to some incredibly generous and friendly people I found a place to stay and managed to get a new bike and was back on the road relatively quickly.  

Most interesting encounter?

I met so many fascinating people on my trip its hard to pick out an individual. I I cycled for a bit with an older guy who really believed in the energy of the road and how you can get so much personal reward if you open yourself up to the energies all around you. I really took a lot from him.

Twice I was invited to peoples homes for a bed to sleep in and a good meal. A couple even joined me for some of my cycle the following day. 

And three people randomly gave me money for “lunch on them” 

The kindness and friendliness was inspiring. I found it difficult to accept it at first thinking there is no way to pay any of them back. Eventually I realised i just have to pay it forward when I find myself in any position to help someone.  

What did you gain from the experience?

A long distance bike trip can be a little too on-the-nose metaphor for life and so I try to avoid the phrases like “its not about the destination its about the journey” or “its full of ups and downs” etc etc. What I really felt, and it took me a long time to come to this realisation, was that I took the trip far too seriously. Although you need to take the logistics and road safety seriously, I rarely took time to relax. I was up early most days, I ate boring food at set times and never deviated from my route. I rarely allowed myself to be spontaneous or to really believe that I could achieve what I set out to. I can see that I approached my career and time at university with the same mentality and I passed up a lot of potential opportunities staying safe.

What advice would you give to someone considering a similar trip?

My advice would be to plan ahead and read as much as possible to create a base for yourself to work from (base route, base time targets etc). Once you have this, it is important to let the journey lead you in different directions.

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