Saturday, August 6th / Sunday, August 7th
In the brief two days and three nights I spent in Vancouver I quickly transitioned from outdoors man to city pleb. The kind of person who queues outside a ramen restaurant because Foursquare gives it a 9.2 or doesn’t question paying almost $5 for a coffee. Just another schlub sitting expressionless on a bus poking at a phone.
It was hard to believe that just a few days ago I would have been unzipping a tent to cook oatmeal in a burnt out pan as I dressed myself in clothes that hadn’t seen the inside of a washing machine in a number of days which should be illegal. I’d spent countless mornings like this, examining maps and wondering where i’d end up sleeping that night.
There were less uncertainties now, and this was just a taste of what was to come as I eased myself back into a more grounded existence.
It was exciting, still, to be in a new city. A novelty too, to enjoy nice food and good coffee. I didn’t really see a huge amount of the city and as my time was spent running around sorting things out, preparing to fly, and getting things fixed.
The main thing was my rear wheel. There was a hole in the rim now big enough to poke a finger through, the spoke had finally ripped through the day I left San Juan and the wheel had begin to lose it’s shape.
I went to Dream Bikes for my first quote. Around $160-180 for a handbuilt, sturdy touring wheel. It sounded a little pricey but the guys in the shop clearly knew their stuff without patronising me. I’d need to leave my bike overnight and pick it up on Sunday afternoon, leaving me with little time to explore the city on wheels. I go to one other shop for a comparison. They have a machine built wheel for $100 and seem fairly clueless. So I cycle back to Dream Bikes and put a deposit down for the handbuilt wheel, agreeing to drop my bike back later in the day. I don’t get very far on it though, and station myself in a coffee shop nearby for a few hours before returning to leave my bike.
At the shop I meet Tracy who is considering getting a touring bike after getting a taste for it on a short trip in Croatia. We chat for a while outside the shop and she offers me the use of her bike until mine is ready. I take her details but decide to walk back to the grimey basement, thinking i’ll take her up on the offer in the morning.
When I get back I immediately leave and take a bus downtown. I didn’t really have a plan but I just want to be out of the house.
I drink some more coffee then decide to watch the new Woody Allen film later in the evening after spontaneously checking the film showings. I had no idea he had a film out. Or really any idea about new and upcoming films or music. It strikes me how pleasantly free of advertising the last 80 days have been.
I buy a ticket at a machine inside a soulless mall in the downtown area which is swarming with homeless heroin addicts. It was sad and overwhelming. I discovered that much like San Francisco in the US, Vancouver was Canadas haven for people looking for a place on the streets. The reasons for this were complicated i’m sure, but like San Francisco it had a more temperate climate which made living on the street more comfortable.
I went for a drink at a bar adjoined to a hostel which had the kind of atmosphere you’d expect from the proximity of these two venues in this location, but I was too tired to engage with it past some small talk with a guy and his friends at my table out celebrating his birthday. I slunk off for tacos then into the cinema.
I enjoyed the film, and just the act of watching it. Sitting in the comfortable dark of the cinema. It felt like I was relearning normal people things. I got the bus home.
I booked a room in a hotel room for Sunday night. It probably would have been easier to stay on the sofa since it meant my day was spent going downtown on the bus again, then on the bus to the bike shop, collecting my bike, cycling back to where i’d been staying, quickly throwing all my stuff on it, cycling back downtown to make a 4.15 haircut, then after that finally checking in. The following day I would be reversing a part of this journey on my way to the airport. But it was all just about worth it. The hotel was in an old building but had been converted to a modern and slightly sterile but comfortable state in the West End of the city.
When I’d told Frank that I would only need to stay with him two nights he’d replied saying something about ‘enjoying the luxuries Vancouver had to offer’ and I couldn’t tell if this was meant sincerely or with a little bit of disdain that I didn’t want to spend a third night on his sofa. There’s the kindness of strangers, and the strangeness of kindees – a certain way to behave when accepting something for free. Maybe it was a little rude of me to leave but I decided that at this point in the trip I really didn’t care and I enjoyed the queen sized bed, the view down on to the street, the clean towels, the clean bathroom, and the simplicity of the transaction which had bestowed these things to me.
As I got my haircut large clumps of weathered hair fell from the electric clippers to the floor. It was hard not to be over sentimental about all the things which had made the 5000 mile journey i’d been on, from my bike, my faded clothes and tattered shoes, even my hair which had been ruffled by the wind of south dakota and spritzed by Niagara falls. But there was something cathartic in having in cut, just like I’d had a few days before i’d left New York. And with my flight tomorrow I looked forward to this trip being firmly bookended so I could begin to focus on new things.
And so the weekend ended with me in a line outside a ramen restaurant. I took a walk back to the hotel via the beach at English Bay as the sun was setting.
Monday, August 8th
I cycled to the airport. Something i’d never done before or really thought was even possible. But the 10 miles passed easily, mostly on roads with cycle lanes or at least signposts reminding drivers to share the lane. But it was still an unorthodox way to arrive.
This would be the third time flying with my bike and I was trying a different approach. Previously I’d packed it into a bike box, this way it gets treated more or less the same as any other piece of luggage. It means disassembling the bike to a greater extent and lugging it around in a box, dragging it across public transport somehow until you find yourself in the airport. I did this in Tokyo and it was not fun.
Instead I would be using a large plastic bag provided by the airline. The idea is that since it will still look more or less like a bike it should receive a better treatment and it means cycling to and from the airport is a lot quicker and easier.
Outside the airport I cut off the pannier attached to the bike with cable ties since I broke the clips in Wyoming. I put all my luggage on a trolley and pushed this with one hand and my bike with the other into the terminal. Somehow navigating it though the narrow zig-zag of poles connected by the elasticated pieces of cloth I checked in at the desk and went away to rearrange my things. Taking some stuff out of my panniers into a carry on bag, and putting everything else into a large Chinese shopping bag which neatly contained my two panniers, handlebar bag, tent and roll matt. I went back to the desk to have the items weighed then was sent over to a security area where I began the process of wrapping the bike in plastic.
After some back and forth between security and the airline I wrapped the extremities of the bike (gear levers, pedals, derailleur) in bubble wrap, wrapped in tape. Then pulled the bag over the top and wrapped this on with tape several times in different directions. It was the biggest plastic bag i’d ever seen. With the amount of tape i’d used – almost half a roll, there was no way of mistaking this item as fragile.
After some confusion finally a dozy looking man appeared from some basement somewhere and took it away. I was now ready to go through security, about two hours after beginning this whole procedure.
Putting it in a box would have been easier in many ways. But I was hoping the bag method would pay off on the other end when I should be able to collect it and be riding again within little more than 15 minutes.
I went through security, through the duty free, bought some pizza, a coffee, sat and waited for the flight. First we flew to Calgary, waited for an hour, then had another 8 hours to Amsterdam. I slept a small amount, watched the film Youth, finished reading A Walk In The Woods and ate as much free food and drink as they’d give me.
I looked at the screen as the small graphic of a plane moved slowly across the map. Sooner or later we crossed over the UK. The word Peterborough jumped out at me for some reason and then it hit me that i’d really left the US behind.
I’d had this idea of looking longingly out the window at America, retracing the path i’d cut across it as I listened to a sad song. This was, of course, a slightly ridiculous idea, and the plane took a different route anyway, an arc mainly over Canada towards Iceland, before coming in over the UK. Before I knew it those 8 hours had gone and I was in Europe again, 11 months after i’d left it.