Bittersweet was the day I rode out from Ingonish and it was both bitter and sweet for precisely the same reason. The journey was nearing an end. It would be great to complete it but at the same time there was an emptiness that I find often accompanies such times and, of course, that nagging what next question.
It was a calm day. One of the calmer days I had seen in a while. The sky was slate grey tingeing blue. The water was flat and featureless on Freshwater Pond save the reflected clouds and trees. The riding was smooth and effortless, gliding in and out of coves and bays choked with the now fading autumn colors. Much brilliance and beauty remained, but the dark shroud of winter’s sleep crept ever closer to the tips of all things living here. Soon there will be nothing but the bare white of naked trees and the cold wind of winter. And of course, blankets of snow.
For the last time on my journey I exited Cape Breton Highlands National Park and a twinge of sorrow touched me. It was the kind of sorrow you feel when you leave someone or something you love and you don’t know when or even if you will see them again. They are hollow and lonesome feelings. Yet I could not help but carry a small smile upon my face all the while in spite of them.
I rounded a corner that brought me into the bottom of Ingonish Harbour. Words would have failed me again in describing the scene had I sought them, but by then I had given up trying. So, I just smiled, shook my head lightly as if in disbelief, and took a deep breath and exhaled. Tranquil. It was easier to describe how things felt than how they looked.
A short relaxing ride later I arrived on the lower slopes of Smokey Mountain. Smokey Mountain when approached from the south is a very long and very intense climb. Much more so than any mountain I had climbed so far. But I was approaching from the north which meant a much longer but much gentler climb to the peak. From either direction the ride would be worth the effort just to get to see the view from the top. Again, as before it was a smile and shake of the head but this time the actions were accompanied by a muted “wow.” The ride down the south side of Smokey is tremendous. It would have been great to be able to be a passenger and just look around during descent but there was no chance of that as I was riding so I occasionally stopped to have a look and take a few photos. To give you an idea of how long and steep the descent was, I could smell the smoking brakes of cars and trucks as they passed me along the way.
After Smokey it was back to the gentle, effortless ride that had preceded it. It was a pretty straightforward ride. Shortly after Smokey I settled into a workmanlike rhythm. There were few hills of note and the gentle tailwind helped propel me the 40 kilometers down the highway to the Englishtown ferry in well under two hours. 6 kilometers more and I reached the end of the Cabot Trail. It was finished. I had ridden the entire Cabot Trail. In Englishtown I had even bought a little pin that says so. From there it was a long ride up Kelly’s Mountain. Like anyone who has driven the Trans Canada to or from the North Sydney ferry, I remembered Kelly’s Mountain. I thought it was about the worst hill I had ever seen, but after riding the Cabot Trail, it didn’t seem so significant anymore. I more or less bombed the downhill. I grew so impatient at one point that I actually switched into high gear and started pedaling for all I was worth. I even pedaled straight through the tight right hand turn at the bottom, almost catching up to cars that had passed me earlier in the bargain.
From there it was a fast ride across Boularderie Island to Bras D’or, 92 kilometers from my start point that morning and a mere 30 kilometers from my final destination in Sydney. I felt like I could make it easily but it was already late in the day and riding in the dark on a relatively unknown road was not high on my list of priorities. So I hunkered down for the evening. I awoke at a decent hour the next day, packed up my rig for the last time, grabbed a little breakfast at the Robin’s just down the road and headed off, covering the 30 kilometer jaunt in about an hour and fifteen minutes. And that was that. It was over. The ride was finished.
I have been back in St. John’s almost a week now. I haven’t seen anything more than a brief moment of sunshine since the day I rode from Pleasant Bay to Ingonish. It’s really starting to drive me bat-shit crazy to be completely honest. And of course there is that nagging “what next” question that still needs to be dealt with. I have to say at this point that I am not sure. But I do know one thing, the VeloTramp will ride again. There is a saying that I am sure you are all familiar with that says, “All good things must come to an end.” I guess that’s true. It certainly seems to be true often enough to be worth repeating from time to time. But there are other truths as well. I like the one that goes, “Every end is a new beginning.” And that is how I must view the end of my ride, as a new beginning. Okay, so right now I am at the beginning of the next VeloTramp Project. I don’t yet know where the next ride will take me or when, but I promise you this. From a marketing and distance point of view it will be bigger and better than this ride. But there is no way it could be more beautiful than Cape Breton. It truly was an incredible place to ride. Sometimes we hear so many good things about a place that by the time we get there our expectations have become unrealistic and we find ourselves a little disappointed. Not so with Cape Breton. Sure, I had people tell me again and again how beautiful, how incredible, amazing, unbelievable etc. etc. etc., the island was. But like me, their words were insufficient to the task, and, truthfully, there was no way it could have been over-hyped, for Cape Breton in fall must truly be one of the most beautiful places on earth.
The day after French Mountain was a pitiful day of weather. There was a stiff north westerly that brought a cold hard rain. A perfectly miserable day to get back on the bike. So I didn’t. On the advice of many Facebook friends, not that I needed a great deal of encouragement, I checked in for a second night at the Mid Trail Motel in Pleasant Bay and enjoyed a morning of leisure in my overpriced, phoneless, prefab room. In the afternoon the rain let up enough to get out and get a few photos without getting completely soaked. It felt good to accomplish something that day.
The next morning was a fine crisp sunny one with a light breeze from the west as I headed westward out of town toward North Mountain. Every local person I had spoken to since climbing French Mountain had seemed more than happy to throw at me the idea that the worst was yet to come. They seemed to revel in the notion that whatever pain or suffering I may have encountered on French would pale in comparison to what I would experience on North. Sadistic bastards. So with a slight trepidation and an unhealthy dose of fear and loathing for a mountain I had not yet met, I set off.
The ride out of town was beautiful. The trees standing at the roadside in beautiful shades of orange and red cast mesmerizing shadows on the grey asphalt. A short ride down the road I came to the Lone Shieling, a replica of a Scottish crofter’s hut, sitting on the edge of one of the largest old growth hardwood forests in the Maritimes. After a quick stop it was back to the road. One last chance for a warm-up before hitting the slopes of North Mountain. It was a pretty damned brief warm-up. Almost immediately I began to climb. As I did I passed a signed that stated, “North Mountain.” I was on it. Warm-up time was over. It was go time.
The first approach was surprisingly steep. After this first rise the mountain offered a nice long stretch of slightly easier riding. It not only gave me a little break it also offered false hope that this was not quite the monster than I had been lead to believe. The monster soon returned and ugly was it’s reared head. The next rise was unbelievably steep and long as was every other rise on the mountain. Unlike French Mountain, North doesn’t offer respites. There are no gentler slopes to ease the suffering of oxygen starved legs. There is no place to ease off in one’s pedaling in order to catch a brief rest. There is only pedal steadily or stop. But then, before I was even ready for it, long before I ever expected it, before me lay the final stretch. The top was right there. I scaled this last steep stretch with great enthusiasm, no longer concerned about saving energy for further climbs. I crested the top with a great flourish and pushed on through, never stopping, taking no breaks; just like French. I soon had my steed racing at speeds of 35 to 40 kilometers an hour as we raced across the plateau to the south side of the mountain. I felt fresh and alive, invigorated by my successful summit of the toughest climb I would face on my tour. I felt great. The view from atop the southern edge of the mountain into the valley below was tremendous, leaving me once again sputtering small, single syllable words, in a vain attempt to describe what I was seeing. Here’s the part where I get sick to my stomach.
I took a couple of photos from the top and began to ease my way onto the steep, steep down slope. As a last thought, I decided I should give both sets of breaks one last good check before heading off. Front brakes? Check. Back brakes? Che.. Oh, shit! The back brakes failed. I damn near rode the south side of North Mountain with no rear brakes! Looking down the intimidating slope in front of me I became nauseous at the thought that me and my heavy laden beast had nearly bombed North Mountain. It still makes me a little nauseous today to think about it. But I corrected the slippage, gave it MANY tests before heading off down the mountain. Along the way I stopped to take a few photos, getting a young lady near the bottom to take one of a victorious Tramp. I had successfully climbed the two most difficult mountains in my path and I couldn’t have felt better.
After a little snack at North Mountain Lookout it was back to the road. After a short ride I passed beautiful Cape North. A little while after that I climbed South Mountain, which is a bit of sweat maker but presented few of the challenges of it’s earlier counterparts. By mid-afternoon I was in Ingonish where I checked into the Glenghorm Beach Resort. I soon discovered it is owned by a Korean guy which gave me the opportunity to use the 8 Korean words I still remember. Just kidding. I actually remember 12.
After a bite of supper at the pizza place that wasn’t serving pizza it was off to bed for an early night. It was a rewarding but tiring 8o kilometer day. The next day would see me exit Cape Breton Highlands National Park for the last time and reach the end of The Cabot Trail. But, as they say at the end of the original Conan the Barbarian, that is a story for another day.
I ate breakfast at Evangeline’s in Cheticamp. It was already beyond mid morning when I sat down in the popular, slow serving diner. I was slow getting ready in the morning. I was already sick of setting up and breaking down my camp. Too many moving parts. It was a tiresome chore and on this morning I let it drag me down. I wrote a post, too. I thank those of you who took time to read it. I was getting sick of posts, too. I wanted to be doing them more than anything else in the world. Editing photos and writing lively pieces and posting them together for people to see and read. But like my camp, my photo editing and writing technologies were less than they could have been. It came to feel a chore to do anything on-line. It was clumsy and slow. “I’ll be carrying a compact PC next time out”, I told myself. “None of this clumsy garbage.” Too many moving parts. And they don’t play well together. I finished my business at the diner, paid up and headed towards the park: CapeBreton Highlands. And straight into the teeth of French Mountain.
Upon entering the park one starts to use a lot of simple words; wow, beautiful, woah, unreal, man, dude, really, shit. They do as good a job as any at describing what you see. Outrageous beauty. The coastal road undulates on the approach to French. A couple of the climbs were steep but thankfully short. They were much harder than I had hoped. I didn’t have good climbing legs. But as I seem to be able to do, I got to the top of them.
The sun had broken through shortly after entering the park and it was quite bright and warm when I dug my teeth into the base of French Mountain. Man, it was steep. And long. I really had no idea how long. I could have easily researched the details of the mountain and had a better idea of what I was in for, but I didn’t really want to know. I needed curiosity to be the driving force of my climb. I needed the desire to see what lay beyond the next turn to pull me up the mountain. It did.
French Mountain is easily the longest, steepest mountain I have ever climbed on a bike. Some parts were unbelievably steep, others incredibly tight. Some were both. In some places the incline was so steep and the left banking corner so tight that a climbing oil truck arriving at the same time as a decending SUV who didn’t have sense enough to brake further up the hill so as to give the oil truck and the poor bugger on the bicycle who is sitting on the high side of the steep curve with an oil truck passing beneath him some room. Nah, he had to put his mass into the tight corner as well. Make it nice and cosy.
Disaster averted I continued to climb, getting encouragement from people at some of the look off points. I was feeling real good. After what felt like an eternity of pumping leg over leg, turning wheel over wheel, I felt that I must be getting somewhere in my quest to conquer the beast. A right turn loomed up ahead on a more gentle grade than any I had seen since I first dug my teeth into this giants throat. The turn opened into a wider view of the road ahead. “Seriously?” I questioned. And kept questioning. “Seriously?” A series of sweeping turns lay ahead, with stretches so obviously steep. There was still a long hard way to go. Then I laughed. What else could I do? So I had a long way to go? Big deal. I would just have to keep going.
Up, I told myself and up I went. Push after push after push after push. Up. There came a moment a time later when I just knew I was going to make it. I had a little quiver enter my breath for a moment, but I knew that allowing it to take hold could kill everything. I realize in the grand scheme of human physical accomplishment me climbing French Mountain on a bicycle is somewhat far down the list. But I had never done anything like this before. I had climbed some big hills but this was my first real mountain. And I climbed. Sometimes rocking my whole body; legs, arms, torso, working in unison to propel myself forward. Up.
At what turned out to be the last viewing area on the mountain I asked a man with a camera to take my picture. I told him and his female companion my Facebook name, told them I would love a copy of the picture. We shared pleasantries and I continued on. I hope they find me and send me the picture. Up.
A little while later I took a turn and stared at what I immediately knew was the last big stretch of the mountain. It was straight up and fairly steep. But it didn’t matter. The mountain had been beaten. It was a muted celebration; a light fist pump, a slight chest thump. And a couple of joyous whoops. I was at the top.
The rest of the ride was academic. The few climbs there were were assailed with ease. The scenery was beyond words to say, right until it disappeared into the rain and fog. A descent of Mackenzie Mountain, in the rain and then out of the mists, to a haven that looks poured from Eden’s mold. Pleasant Bay. It was a big day, and for me, a great accomplishment. But also a real eye opener. You see, I’m being told that the worst is yet to come. Tomorrow, I have to set my wheels upon North Mountain. It is by all accounts the most difficult climb of the clockwise tour of Cape Breton Highlands. Harder than French Mountain. Good god! But there’s no going around it. Not that I would if I could. So, there is only go over it. And I will do that by doing what I always seem to be able to do. I will just keep pushing and turning, and going. Up.