As Sam has posted, a bunch of us went on a bike trip in Newfoundland last week. It was an awe-inspiring trip in many ways. First, the place is just stunning — it’s pretty in that “this is almost too lovely and quaint and inviting to be true” kind of way:
But it’s also stunning in a primal, earth-at-its-essence kind of way.
More than all of that, I remain awed that we actually rode what we rode.
Newfoundland is a place of grit, the first place Europeans are known to have landed in North America (Norse people nearly 500 years before Columbus), a place that has been home to countless generations of indigenous people (gone now for the most part because of settler genocide), a place of people who have made life and culture out of fishing and the sea, and who have weathered poverty, the collapse of the cod fishery, an unforgiving climate and remain notoriously generous, welcoming, kind.
It only makes sense that riding in Newfoundland requires a pretty significant helping of grit. Our total trip, from Deer Lake to L’Anse aux Meadows (the viking settlement), was more than 600 km — 600 hilly, cold, wet, windy, insect-ful kilometres.
I’m a pretty strong rider, and I have this fancy new adventure bike (which I love — more about this later!), and I’m known for my persistence. And I found some of these rides unbelievably hard. And when you are climbing more than 1300 m over a 92 km day, or riding 87 km in an average temperature of 3 degrees C, mostly soaking wet and freezing, or engaged in a primal, solo battle with trickster, murderous cross-winds — on these rides, you do have to wonder — why do this?
This question was a frequent topic on the road for me and Susan. It wasn’t the kind of riding where it was easy to ride side by side chatting, most of the time, but we did have a running dialogue about “why are we doing this, exactly?”
There are certainly some facile answers to this question — I wanted to be with people I love and enjoy, I wanted to see a part of the country I’ve always been drawn to, I wanted to see L’anse aux meadows, which has captured my imagination since I was 10, I like an active holiday. But there are bike trips and there are Bike Trips. There is riding gently on the Tuscan coast and staying in crumbling, sun-kissed inns, and there is riding through rain and cold and swarms of midges and mosquitoes, eating a sandwich in a ditch, battling with wearying wind, and then cooking your own food and sleeping in a tent. This is not for everyone.
On many of the hours on this trip, I went into my sort of head-down, high efficiency, total flow-focus that marks my particular brand of grit. (The thing that, in a past version of me, made me an excellent marathoner). I can pedal past the “this is uncomfortable, wow there are icy rivers in my shoes, is this what hypoTHERMIA feels like, OMG these effing black flies, this wind is going to throw me in the ditch and no one will ever find my body” internal dialogue and just dip into the essential part of me, where physical and emotional strength meet and thought becomes secondary. I can tap into the part of me that is animal, just engaged with moving, the outside world, the potential inside me.
This is the flow that evokes the wisdom our guide repeated many times when I climbed Kilimanjaro 10 years ago: “The mountain is the mountain. Today is today.”
There aren’t many places — or ways of moving through places — that summon up that sense of absolute presence. And I need it.
I keep thinking that this kind of grit-pushing effort comes down to knowing why you are riding your own road. And conversely, riding this hard road can teach you what that meaning is. Fighting with wind, fighting fatigue, finding your untapped grit, hours on the bike — it clarifies things.
For me, it clarifies how important it is for me to get in flow with that grit-version of me. I don’t need to live there all the time — after the wettest, coldest day, Susan and I took a day off and got a ride to the next town and a tour of the area and all its history and tragedies with Steve’s dad Bill. That was good. And I was ready to get back on the bike the next day for our longest day.
Grit. Not good in your shoes, but good in your soul.
Fieldpoppy is Cate Creede, who lives and rides in Toronto. This is a picture of her on a nice little hike on a day off riding on this trip — look how serene she looks. She likes to count things, and this is her 100th post for this blog.