The Great Ontario Highway Lottery
Espanola, ON - Wednesday, July 6, 2016
For a split second, I thought my ticket number had just been drawn. And I was now the reluctant winner of a free trip to paradise.
It wouldn’t have been too surprising. My odds were quite good. Still are.
A huge elephant of a cement mixer had tried to muscle in on my territory and, instinctively, I pulled in my elbows, desperately avoiding contact with a sharp tusk or a flapping ear or a swishing tail.
And then, just as rapidly as he had appeared, he was gone, vanishing mirage-like into the distance. So I didn’t win the grand prize after all. But there’ll be more chances, today and tomorrow and next week, as I pedal apprehensively through northern Ontario, the unwilling captive of an antiquated Trans-Canada Highway.
With its bulging red panniers – Elizabeth’s panniers, rescued and repaired – my bicycle is more than two feet wide and easily overlaps the one-foot paved shoulder. And as it bucks and bounces along this narrow strip of broken asphalt, my front wheel constantly struggles to keep rolling in a straight line.
Often, I’ve tried to travel on the adjoining six-foot sand and gravel shoulder, but it’s too soft. And if I had hit it while alongside that monstrous pachyderm, I would have slid and spun out of control, and then been trampled.
My current weight is 265 lb (rider=165 lb; bike=30 lb; gear= 70 lb), and I’m rolling at 20 km/hr on two-inch wide rubber. And I know too well how my bicycle will react when it slips unexpectedly off the pavement. The last time, I was fortunate to escape with a severe case of road rash, and twelve stitches (layered, five, four and three) in my left knee. Happily, there weren’t any motor vehicles nearby.
Why did that cement-mixer crowd me so dangerously? Maybe he spotted a big rhinoceros coming in the opposite direction and didn’t want to cross the centre line. Maybe he was distracted and didn’t see my skinny little frame with its tiny flashing red light. Maybe he was venting hostility towards cyclists on the highway and decided to engage in some playful intimidation.
The margin of error was miniscule. A little wobble in my front wheel, a loose piece of asphalt, a slight gear slippage, a sudden side draft, and the casino would have closed for the day. No more bets, folks, the game’s over.
Proposed Trans Canada Trail route on Highway 17, near Mississagi, Ontario
Shortly after Elizabeth died, Isaak Kornelson, a 21-year-old cyclist, cross-country runner and university student, fell under the wheels of a cement mixer on Whyte Avenue in Edmonton’s Old Strathcona. The driver didn’t even notice. Isaak had hit the extended side mirror of a parked truck, lost his balance and tumbled sideways. For a time, the death site was marked by a white-painted “ghost” bike.
Anyway, shortly after my close brush with the elephant, I found temporary respite by turning off Highway 17 and onto Lee Valley Road, a paved two-lane route with no shoulders, light traffic and a speed limit of 60 km/hr. Oh, and it’s also a completed and operational and well-signed section of the Trans Canada Trail.
That’s where I met Colin, a young man pedaling a fully-loaded Kona Jake the Snake. He had started his ride in St. John’s, Newfoundland, and was cycling home to Vancouver. But he was completely disgusted with Ontario’s highways – way too dangerous – and was now heading to the American border.
He told me that his arms and shoulders were sore and aching from the vice-like grip he needed to steady his bike on the narrow and crumbling roadsides. I sympathized. Two fingers on my left hand are constantly numb.
“It’s ironic though, isn’t it,” I commented, “that in order to cycle with minimal safety across Canada, you have to do most of your ride through the United States!”
I assured him that he was absolutely making the right decision: “The route between Sault Ste. Marie and Kenora is much worse, if you can believe that. It’s extremely winding, the shoulders are narrow and the sight-lines are terrible.”
“Three years ago, a married couple in their sixties, riding from Vancouver to St. John’s, were killed just outside of Nipigon. They were hit by an American tourist from Texas who crossed onto the shoulder. He was found guilty of careless driving and fined $2,500.”
“Although you probably don’t realise it, the road we’re on now is part of the Trans Canada Trail. And the founding of this trail was motivated by the death in 1985 of three teenagers killed while cycling along a highway shoulder near Calgary. Four of their companions were injured.”
“In my opinion, it’s completely perverse that our national trail is now on roads and highways. And when the Sudbury to Sault Ste. Marie stretch is fully connected next year, it will include 45 kilometres on Highway 17, albeit with widened shoulders.”
We shake hands and wish each other safe travels, and then continue on our separate journeys.
The next day, when I return to the dreaded Highway 17, a minivan screams close by me, its sliding side door wide open. A clean-cut young man about 18 years old leans out and yells: “Do you want to get yourself fucking killed?”
At least I think that’s what he said. What with the high speed and the traffic noise, it was hard to make out the exact words. But I’ve heard them many times before.
And it’s a good question. What kind of idiot rides his bicycle along a dangerous highway? It’s not even fun. My feeble excuse is that I’m determined to follow the Trans Canada Trail route right across the country.
Elizabeth would understand, but she wouldn’t approve. In a stern voice, she would warn: “Don’t gamble with your life.”