Prologue – Kiss of Death
Here I am – gritting teeth as I climb the Trans-Canada Highway snaking through the high Rockies. With growling transfer trucks creating wind tunnels that ominously draw me into their 18 blade-like wheels, I am biking at the blurry intersection between life and death. Life is a precious gift, yet my subconsciousness tells me there are bigger things than life. Lungs oxygenated with crisp mountain air and eyes dead set at the snow-capped peaks, I know my adventure has truly begun.
British Columbia – Beautiful British Columbia
My west-to-east bike tour begins under the towering skyscrapers of Vancouver’s North Shore. Loaded with four panniers that carry camping essentials, clothes, electronics, and various documents, my bicycle, a hand-me-down MEC1971 from my colleague Bronwyn, maneuvers through the narrow exit of my apartment building. As a novel cyclist with just over a month of experience on the bike, I am convinced that it would be a miracle to even make it out of the Lower Mainland. As Murphy’s Law would have it, 20 minutes into the ride, I fall at a sharp turn underneath the Ironworkers Memorial Bridge and resort to securing my pannier hooks, which have disintegrated as a result of the fall, to the bike rack using my food bag cord. After struggles with my navigation system and detours around construction sites, I wave goodbye to Vancouver and arrive at the Sun Valley Trout Park in Mission, where I camp for the first time in life.
At dawn, I pack my panniers and flick away the morning dew on my bike saddle – day one is now in the book. The mighty Fraser River takes me through serene farmlands scattered along the foothill of mountain ridges. Hope, a town of six thousand with clouds hovering its majestic mountains year-round, marks the point of no return as chickening out and back tracking to Vancouver would have been just as challenging as trudging forward. The road out of Hope towards Manning Park is, sarcastically, hopeless – one that is saturated with relentless, devilish climbs. I quickly find myself hiking my bicycle. On this windy stretch of the Crowsnest Highway, scattered spring melts create pockets of microclimate; snow piles decorate the base of pine trees. Above the snowline, Manning Park gracefully sits at the top of the Allison Pass, where the Sun casts its first golden tinge during sunrise every day.
Exhilarating downhills from the Allison Pass and Sunday Pass take me to the heart of Princeton, where I am hosted by Kalevi, his daughter Stella, and son Simon. The Kalevis are my first WarmShowers host, sheltering me in their cozy living room as an intense thunderstorm unfolds outside. Amidst the intermittent lightning strikes, the Kalevis enchant me with their upbringing on the prairies and subsequent relocation to the Similkameen region of southern British Columbia through ranch work. “You are a friend unless proven otherwise,” Kalevi says, as he cracks open a can of beer. In the kindness of total strangers so far from home, I sleep safe and sound.
Roadside fruit stands and timeless vineyards welcome me to the Sun-bathed Okanagan Valley. In my stopover in Kelowna, I have the pleasure to stay with Meaghan Hackinen, who sets world records in Time Trial 24 (TT24) Championships in 2019 and again in 2022. Wild-hearted, Meaghan’s two-wheeled adventures have taken her from Haida Gwaii to Mexico’s high plateaus, across Canada and the United States, and from North Cape to Tarifa along some of Europe’s highest paved roads. In 2022 alone, Meaghan clocked 24,000 kms on her bike, traversing an impressive array of 21 countries spread over 2 continents. Meaghan’s accomplishments are astronomical to me. Based on some of her adventures, Meaghan authored “South Away” and “Switching Gears,” bringing the ups and downs of ultra-endurance cycling to life. I would have never imagined that I would be sitting side by side with Meaghan and her family. Radicalized down to every nerve ending, I get the sense that it is the spirituality, freedom, simplicity, and self-sufficiency that incentivizes people like Meaghan and her family to embark on epic adventures. Even though I have just met Meaghan, her grits and outlook inspire me, lighting away the darkness of the road ahead and imprinting the big picture of life as I pedal through the breathtaking North American continent.
Highway 97 takes me to the town of Sicamous, where I pitch camp beside flowing creek and sleep under night sky glistened with shining stars. Beyond Sicamous, the only way to enter Alberta is via the Trans-Canada Highway, spanning through snow-capped Rocky Mountains, throughout which there are no cell services. Completely alone, I must conquer my fear. Jamming to “Free” by Florence and the Machine, I bike through dark snowsheds, trek on steep hills, battle against fierce head winds, and sprint through construction sites alongside flying cargo trucks. Amidst the kiss of death, my heart is my compass; my body is my engine; freedom is my anthem. Alberta is just on the other side of the Rockies. Onwards.
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Alberta – Wild Rose Country
Day 16, down from the Kicking Horse Pass along the Great Divide, I reach the sign of Alberta, a tearjerker moment. Dense forest fires ravaging Northern Alberta have spread and enshroud the majestic Rockies on the southern provincial border. At the HI Lake Louise Hostel, I befriend solo female travellers, Yoshi and Sohe, hailing from Japan and South Korea, respectively. We bond over our spontaneity, love of the unknowns, and curiosity for Canada. Even though we part on different days, we are all heading east.
East of Lake Louise features a pristine stretch of highway 1A followed by Bow Valley Parkway, which is completely blocked off for cyclists every summer, and then Legacy Trail elegantly connecting Banff and Canmore. Canmore is a special locale, in fact, the inspiration for this trip. Mom and I have visited Canmore at least once every year since 2017. In September 2022, we each rented a mountain bike from Trail Sports from the Canmore Nordic Centre, getting on the saddle for the first time. It is during the 2-hour mountain biking session that I came up with the ludicrous idea of possibly cycling to the east coast. This time around, cycling into Canmore feels like cycling down the memory lane – I recognize that ever-familiar bagel store with colorful spoons on the 8th street, the historic coffee shop always looking out to the Three Sisters peak. Words cannot describe the spring of emotions I feel when coming here on a bike.
The Rockies sit still. Against the backdrop of Three Sisters, I settle on a park bench near Quarry Lake, quietly watching as the Sun casts its final blood-orange tinge on the lake. Serenity sets in. I hold a great deal of gratitude for the mountains in front of me. Yet, their silence pierces through my eardrum, roaring with insurmountable strength only Nature can give.
Day 21 marks my departure from Canmore and gradual descent to Calgary, the heart of Alberta. East of Canmore embodies the seamless amalgamation and a peaceful dialogue between the Rockies and prairies. The Trans-Canada Highway takes me through Strathmore, Brooks, and Medicine Hat, where oil rigs become common sights. In Medicine Hat, I am gifted three hearty bags of lunch with fresh fruits and salads from cafeteria staff at the Medicine Hat College to fuel up for the ride crossing to Saskatchewan – another testament to the whole-hearted kindness of total strangers. Notably, the most important lesson of it all is when people offer you kindness, instead of paying it back, pay it forward.
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Saskatchewan – The Land of Living Skies / Canada’s Bread Basket
I roll into Saskatchewan on day 28 in far-from-ideal conditions, soaking wet, low blood-sugared, and possibly minutes away from a mental breakdown. The wild prairie head winds and merciless downpour give me a taste of the consequences of poor planning. At the hotel in Maple Creek, Receptionist Beata goes above and beyond in offering me juice and warm muffins, which I gulp down instantaneously. After a full day of restoration in Maple Creek, I hop back on the saddle, following the Trans-Canada Highway and pumping about 100 kms a day.
Saskatchewan boasts some of the most spectacular farmlands in the country. With fields dotted with oil rigs, farmhouses, and canola flowers, Saskatchewan peacefully tells its story of the land of living skies. On the open road, I pass by hamlets in the vast wilderness, catch ground moles galloping and digging out of sight, and see transfer trucks carry gigantic mobile homes.
The prairie has no ends, and neither does people’s kindness. In a breakfast restaurant on the outskirts of Regina, an elderly lady, upon hearing my story, offers me $20, which I could not accept. On my way to Indian Head, Cici, a lady at a local bar I happen to duck into for water, insists on buying me a can of pop. In Indian Head, retired teacher Sherry and husband Bruce warmly welcome me into their house, offering me the basement for a cool night of sleep as temperature in Southern Saskatchewan trends towards 40s.
The Sun rises above the prairie plain at 5:00 AM. Listening to bird chirping and wheels spinning, I fall in love with the plain simplicity and very elements on which Nature thrives here. I sing to the grass along the highway. In no time, I am about to enter the Central Time Zone and the final prairie province – Manitoba.
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Manitoba – Friendly Manitoba
Compared to Saskatchewan, Manitoba presents denser woods, marshlands, and some of the harshest prairie storms in Canadian history. As a result of winter temperatures plummeting to 40 below 0, the Trans-Canada Highway in Manitoba is riddled with potholes and sharp stones, leading to many flat tires. Fixing flats on the side of the highway proves to be quite a mess. With the bike inverted, wheels off, panniers scattered along the highway shoulder resembling a crime scene, I squat down, strip the tire off of the burning hot tire rim with greasy, lube-stained hands under the scorching Sun.
The next day, two cross-Canada cyclists and fresh Engineering grads from McMaster University, Adam and Joshua, catch me fixing flats on the side of the road. It is exhilarating to meet bicyclists travelling in the same direction after being alone on the prairie for weeks. Together, we ride towards Brandon, where I receive a tornado alert later that evening.
Day 42 marks my entry into Winnipeg. Winnipeg’s city skyline looks out of place for the endless prairie scene. Modern skyscrapers and bustling city hustle snap me back to “reality.” Seeing couples holding hands and parents pushing strollers through Winnipeg’s downtown streets serves as a reminder to the somewhat distant life to which I bade farewell. Before I embarked on this trip, Winnipeg was deemed as my final destination in the most ideal situation, as biking across the entirety of Canada is too ambitious of a goal for me as a novice cyclist. With pride and excitement, I roar into the big city.
18 kms east of Winnipeg, I pay a visit to the Geographical Centre of Canada sign in Taché, MB. Shortly afterwards, lush marshlands ensue. Horseflies chasing and swarming leave me out of breath and concerned for road safety as my bicycle zigzags along the highway shoulder, barely missing speeding semi-trucks. For the first time in life, I resort to hitchhiking, along with my bicycle, to shelter from the armies of blood-thirsty horseflies raging outside the car window.
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Ontario – A Place to Grow
Marked by windy highways through rocky hills, Ontario denotes the transition point from the vast prairies to rolling terrain, throughout which islands and lakes can be found. Unfortunately, encounters with horseflies continue to intensify. A combination of hitchhiking and cycling get me to Kenora, the Westernmost city in Ontario. Apart from the aggressive bug attacks, the treacherous 2,000-km Trans-Canada highway through Ontario is mostly two-lane, with narrow shoulders and heavy traffic. After entering Kenora, I decide to back track to Winnipeg and fly to Ottawa. Boxing my bike and sending it off to the airport is not glorious. Nonetheless, this experience teaches me the importance of quitting rationally, which is a value undervalued in society yet so crucial in many situations.
Ottawa connects to Gatineau, QC, via bridges running parallel from Parliament Hill. In Ottawa, I cruise along scenic waterfront bike trails, and meet up with Meaghan prior to her race, before heading east towards QC.
The ride from Ottawa to Montréal is quite the adventure. I take cover in people’s garages during an intense downpour. As rain subsides, I trek north, only to find myself without accommodation for the evening. In the moment of desperation, I go house to house, knocking on strangers’ doors. Eventually, Josie from Hawkesbury, the last Ontario town bordering Québec, invites me to pitch a tent in her backyard. It is heartening to see how people in every nook and cranny of Canada show trust and kindness to strangers like me in times of need.
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Québec – Je me souviens
Being the home of La Route Verte, Québec takes pride in its unparalleled cycling culture that permeates even the most remote towns and villages with state-of-the-art infrastructure and cyclist-aware motorists. In Québec, I meet many inspiring individuals and duos walking across the province. Particularly, a Swiss couple, along with their dog, are walking across Canada before heading south to Argentina.
St. Lawrence River’s winding shore takes me right through the province, with the river always on my right from Montréal to Québec city and switching sides to my left from Québec city to Rivière-du-Loup. Strawberry stands, magnificent churches, and dainty ice-cream shops as well as cafés accompany me, accentuating the province’s strong European vibe. Northern Québec features many mountains and hills – a quiet retreat from bustling city scenes.
Québec is also the province that I camp through and through, spending my time outdoors 24/7 in harmony with elements of nature. Importantly, in this special province, I hang out with my best friend, Dhara Patel, after over 3 years apart. To Dhara: Without you being my safety angel, who I can count on at any hour of the day, I would not have grown to become a better version of myself. Thank you for standing with me, rain or shine.
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New Brunswick Hope Was Restored
Day 64, with the pitter-patter sounds of rain, I make it to Atlantic Canada, losing another hour to the Atlantic Time Zone. Skid marks spilled onto the shoulder of the Trans-Canada Highway remind me of the unimaginable consequences of trucks losing traction on the wet asphalt. Thankfully, there were no incidents in Western and Central Canada – I am still upright.
The close proximity of New Brunswick to the state of Maine (ME) piques my interest in crossing over to the United States. On a whim, I ride to the Madawaska (ME) point of entry, but only to find out that I lack the travel documents to enter the States. Picture taken, paperwork signed, I bring a white slip of refusal letter with me and ride back to the Canadian border. “Life well-lived,” I cheer myself on.
The next few days of riding in the dense woods of New Brunswick bring me to dark creeks, steep hills, and encounters with guard dogs present in homes and families on quiet New Brunswick backroads. As I climb hills after hills from the northern (French) to the southern (mostly English) part of the province, I cannot help but appreciate the geological and anthropological diversity of Canada and the harmony distilled from such diversity.
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Prince Edward Island – Birthplace of Confederation
Prince Edward Island is a colorful paradise with red sand beaches surrounding the island and yellow patches of canola fields popping out of a green oasis of farmlands under blue-birdy sky. I bike through steep hills, picturesque backroads, and reach Brackley Beach that looks out to the Gulf of St. Lawrence, a prelude to the Atlantic Ocean. In my psyche, physical exhaustion has long creeped in, devouring my leg muscles, one fibre at a time. Unwilling to give in to the urge to stop, I drift soullessly on lonely cropland, inching bit by bit to the edge of my next province – Nova Scotia.
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Nova Scotia – Canada’s Ocean Playground
After getting off of the PEI-NS ferry in Caribou, NS, I am only 158 kms away from Halifax. Do I claim an easy victory by straight lining to Halifax? Halifax is my comfort zone, a home-away-from-home, and a special locale where I grew so much and found my calling in teaching, a key motivator for me to quit my PhD at UBC and head back to the East Coast to start from the ground up at 24 years old. Is my adventurous spirit worth knowingly stripping myself from this much-longed-for comfort, this sense of belonging, especially after 74 days of continuously living on the bike, camping in the heat, suffering from sunburn rashes, being covered by bug bites and chain marks, battling hilly rides amidst thunderstorms on gas station food, and then putting myself through yet another road of uncertainty, physical, and mental hardships? I am hesitant to say YES to this question. But, I MUST NOT say no. Clearly, growing up with an adventurous, single mother who has made bold decisions in life has shaped me – I can picture my mom telling me to keep going. She is my North Star from Day One, a steadfast cheerleader. Therefore, I knew the answer, that is, to take the 3rd roundabout at the intersection in New Glasgow, NS – as opposed to going down South to my comfort zone – bringing my bike to Newfoundland and finishing the country – the second largest country on the Earth, solo. I am changing my plans once again, but for the last time – final destination: Cape Spear, the easternmost point of North America.
Indeed, as promised, I make the right turn. GPS dot shows that I am getting farther away from Halifax but closer to the northeastern tip of Cape Breton Island (North Sydney, NS), where the Newfoundland-bound ferry is located.
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Newfoundland and Labrador Quaerite Prime Regnum Dei
Off a 16-hour ferry to Argentia and deprived of sleep, I give my all to the road, making it to St. John’s, the easternmost city in Canada, on a fully loaded bike in one day. After passing by wild lavenders and numerous ponds with soul-gazing blue water, I arrive in St. John’s, a city living on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean and decorated by colorful houses juxtaposing one another.
Cape Spear is less than 20 kms away from St. John’s. On Day 81, I set off to climb the Cape Spear Drive. With an elevation profile of 425 metres one way, the tortuous climb up makes every fibre of my leg muscle scream. On the final stretch of this cross-Canada bike trip, I think of Mom again. It is about 8:30 PM Beijing time, accounting for the time difference; she must be doing her daily 5-km run now (she made it a habit to run 5 kms every day since May this year, only taking rest days when she travels). My mom raised me and watched me grow up all by herself. Even though I grew up single-parented, I never felt like I was missing out. This is because Mom had to shoulder the responsibilities of being a mom and dad at the same time. She had to play both roles. In essence, my mom exemplifies my ultimate role model in life – wise, persevering, tough yet compassionate, and, by all regards, the-odd-one-out. She taught and continues to teach me it is okay to be scared; it is okay to feel uncertain; and it is absolutely alright to live life without regrets. I pedal with teary eyes, until the contour of the Cape Spear Lighthouse becomes the dead centre of my vision field. Free as birds, I sing with Canada on my back, bike by my side.
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Besides the heart-warming humanities and stunning nature unique to Canada, this coast-to-coast solo bike trip offers many lessons that can be applicable to life ahead. Here are some of them:
Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss, you will land among the stars.
Days on the road trump those spent making materialistic gains. Throughout this 81-day journey, I was unemployed; however, this adventure is endlessly fulfilling and one that I will cherish for the rest of my life.
Less is more. Living on the bike, I have no other needs than surviving. Everything I bring, I end up using. Minimalism is a wealth of choice.
The most difficult situations require the
simplest answer – that is, just follow your heart.
Spontaneity is a plan in and of itself.
Maybe, at the end of the day, all you need is a good playlist.