We left Hope behind us.
That is, we left the town of Hope behind us, and pedaled westward at 6:30 on a dark, wet morning. Steel wool clouds hung low from an anthracite sky - the recent dawn had brought no sun, and little light. Ahead the shining surface of the Trans-Canada Highway reflected a dull and grainy world, a hasty watercolor in the early morning dimness.
The wooly sky poured - no; bucketed, torrented, deluged, waterfalled, cat-and-dogged, showered, flooded, cascaded - down on us, but we were used to that. The sombre western skies had parted and wept on us at least once on five of the eight days since we had rolled out of Calgary. Averaging about ninety miles a day, on heavily laden bicycles, we were tired now on the final ride, and looking forward to arriving in Vancouver. With another hundred miles to cover that day we could have done without the sobbing skies. But it was not ours to choose.
I rode up beside Gay on the wide shoulder of the drowned highway, and we talked for a few minutes as we pedaled behind four other riders, my brother and her son among them. Each pair rode slotted between the rooster tails of spray arching up from the rear wheels of the bicycles in front. Droplets of water were flung face-high in a steady fountain, a silvery arc shining against the steely dark road and the wrought-iron and green wash of the trees on the far side of the highway. With the pressure of each pedal stroke I felt the water welling up inside my shoes.
There was a constant ssshh sound from my wheels as they sliced through the rainwater on the flooded pavement, and occasionally a mighty whoosh! - a sibilant roar dopplered past my left ear as a car or truck sailed by. And sail they did; cutting a bow wave of spray to fan back at us frail cyclists, to soak us yet again, only in an angular direction - multiplying the torrent descending from above and the spray rising from our own wheels with carwash jets from the side. Showered in three dimensions.
As Gay was another traveler who kept a diary, I mentioned to her how easy the journal of this trip would be to write:
"We cycled, we ate, we slept. And then it rained."
Nine intrepid knights of the road had wheeled out of Calgary on a bright morning, a strong wind rising as we saddled up at the hotel. It fortunately settled into the friendly support of a tailwind, and this was a good omen; to pick up an easterly tailwind against the usual prevailing westerlies. We pedaled across the high plains country, gradually spreading out along the wide, paved shoulder of Alberta Highway 1A to ride alone or in pairs, according to our preferred paces. Sandy-brown prairie dogs scurried for their holes in the dry earth, the less swift lay still by the side of the road.
I rode up by myself for awhile, hawks gliding above the nearby fields, and crows and magpies escorting me over the open, slightly rolling country. Magpies, natty tuxedos-on-the-wing, are unknown in my native eastern Canada, but in Europe and the West they are the most striking of birds; the elegant black body, white shirtfront and epaulettes, the wings and long formal tails black with flashes of white.
Rail fences and barbed wire enclosed the ranches, the undulating pasturelands broken only by occasional stands of low poplar trees, their silvery leaves twinkling like bright coins in the breeze. A pair of overstuffed black ravens, much larger than their crow cousins, were a dour presence like fat, bedraggled undertakers against a short green field. Along the western horizon stretched the blue-gray line of the Rockies, still far off, a solid unbroken rampart with faint veins of snow in the sheltered ridges.
I looked down at the map on the handlebar bag in front of me, tracing our steady progress west along the red line of Highway lA. Then I turned my eyes back to the road as I sped through a long downhill, and past the small town of Cochrane. A few miles later I smiled to see a sign marking the storybook name of Ghost River.
A band of Stoney Indians was camped on the north end of Ghost River, and at night they would hear a herd of buffalo stampeding eastward. One warrior, determined to discover what was driving the buffalo, kept his horse ready all night beside his tepee. Around midnight he heard the thundering hooves, and jumped on his horse to chase after them.
He saw a rider ahead of him stampeding the buffalo, a naked man with a feather in his hair riding a gray horse. The pursuer pushed his horse faster and faster, but as he finally came alongside them the horse and rider disappeared.
They were ghosts.
That is how Ghost River got its name.
Bruce rode up alongside me in his "La Vie Claire" racing team jersey, the colorful geometric Mondrian rectangles made famous by Bernard Hinault and Greg Lemond in the Tour de France. Bruce was in his late thirties, solidly built with light brown hair and a faint moustache, and the only cyclist in this group I hadn't known before.
As Bruce and I pedaled along together, side by side on the six-foot shoulder, he told me that he worked in the hazardous waste business, and I asked him if he meant creating it or disposing of it. "Disposing of it", he laughed, and I asked him what he thought of the idea of one day sending it all to the moon, which had always sounded like a neat solution to me. "I don't know about that", he said doubtfully. "Maybe to the sun."
That was an intriguing thought, I reflected on it a little more as we cycled on: "I guess the main problem still would be to get it safely launched, without the risk of having the whole lot blow up on the ground." My imagination began to toy with the idea of a giant barge that could be raised up to an already orbiting vehicle, by long carbon-fibre cables, or maybe some kind of ray...and then a bump in the road brought me back to earth.
Bruce spoke of the surge of public concern about this problem a few years back, which had made him hopeful of a solution, but the brief furor had seemed to subside into apathy again of late. I offered the opinion that it was just the "cause of the week" syndrome; that a fickle public had moved on to starvation in Africa, then drugs in schools, then obscenity in Rock lyrics etc.
I said that all of these environmental concerns were too much subservient to political interests, and that too often the real causes were ignored - the belching, stinking, spewing poison of factories in areas where jobs were considered more important - while the "pretend remedies" were enforced instead, like pollution controls on cars. I said that it was my understanding that at their worst cars only contributed about 6% of all the nasty stuff we put into the air.
"I don't know about that", said Bruce doubtfully.
In mentioning the fact that he'd never heard of Rush before, Bruce told me that since he'd converted to Christianity ten years ago he didn't follow music much anymore, though he liked "that Swedish group" (Oh God - Abba! I'd never met a real Abba fan before), and songs by groups like Air Supply. I nodded slowly and remained silent, my eyes on the road.
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