500 Kindnesses Ride Day #9: South of the Border

In 2012, Daegan and I embarked on our longest ever bicycle tour: 500 Kindnesses. This project was treated like a charity bicycle ride in that we asked for “sponsors” to support us. But instead of sending money to a charity we asked them to perform a random act of kindness for someone. In the end, over 1,000 pledges were received. Our ride would take us from Toronto, northeast to Ottawa and Montreal then south through my home state of Vermont, eventually ending up in New York City. The trip was made on a tandem bicycle as Daegan was still young (only 13) and less confident cycling on busy streets like we might encounter in the major cities we’d pass through. Or perhaps, if I’m honest, I can say that I was far more nervous than he was and having him riding the same bike made me feel more comfortable.

Over the next several weeks I’ll be posting original entries from the trip.

July 12, 2012 – Approximate distance: 120 km

Relaxing in the courtyard of our host’s home

Even though we’d had a break just two days before in Ottawa, we were happy to relax in Montreal. Daegan got to sleep in again, and I got to relax at our host’s home, having a leisurely morning before going out to breakfast where we were to partake on one of my favourite things about being in Quebec, cafe au lait.

Coffee by the bowl, my favourite!

We wandered around Montreal a bit, easily one of my top three favourite cities in North America. We ate lots of good food including fantastic dim sum at a place a friend of mine suggested, lingered over iced coffee, went to the movies again (Prometheus – very entertaining!), and took in some street art.

Visiting the shrine…

Our first night’s dinner was fantastic. We weren’t the only couchsurfers there – there was a woman who was originally from Ontario but now lived in India and was in town for an Acrobatic Yoga workshop, another woman was there from Singapore for a job interview in Montreal, and another woman was there who was originally from Haiti. Several of them had worked together to make a delicious salad, Creole chicken and savoury creole cornmeal pudding that went well with the sauce from the chicken. Dessert was vanilla ice cream with maple sugar and syrup. With such a diverse group around the table the conversations were fascinating.

The next night we went to visit my friend Hélène who I stayed with last summer when riding to Quebec City. Her house was being renovated when we were scheduling our trip and so we ended up staying with someone else. However, after dinner we decided to spend another night in Montreal at Hélène’s house the next night so we got two full days off!

Our last rest day was truly restful with a nice long sleep-in for both of us, followed by a leisurely breakfast at a restaurant a short walk from the house. Daegan felt inspired and used the French menu and then ordered his breakfast in French – I think the first time he spoke French to a stranger. After breakfast we packed our bags and headed over to Hélène’s house across the St. Lawrence in Longueuil. Hélène was not yet home so we relaxed a bit with Daegan hanging out with her cat, Mimi while I had a lovely nap.

When Hélène got home we all went out for dinner and as it was a work night for Hélène and we were riding the next day, we went to bed early.

The next day we were up bright and early, eating a light first breakfast and coffee before heading out. After several days of going generally east, the time had come to turn due south. After two days of relaxation, getting going again was tough. And to make it a bit more challenging, there was some confusing construction and road closures in Montreal’s inner suburbs. Making it even more difficult, we had a strong headwind for the first time on the trip. But on the positive side, the bike route was, for the most part, a fully separated lane until we were well out of Montreal, just in time to stop about 30 kilometres away for our second breakfast: Italian paninis and smoothies at a lovely cafe. Sadly, it seemed like it took forever to go that little distance – a bit of a discouraging start to the day. Finally, after we cleared Montreal and its suburbs, we picked up a little speed as we got into the country.

Heading into the country

The route between Montreal and the US border was really lovely. There were lots of small farms, big fields, and long stretches of road without traffic. As you might imagine, it could feel a bit weird to be alone in a desolate place like that. Imagine our surprise, then when we came across one of the strangest sights of the trip. On the east side of the road was a house. But instead of the house being on a normal foundation, the bottom of the house was supported by long metal I-Beams (like the structural steel that they make skyscrapers out of): one in the front, and one in the back. And these I-beams were supported on, of all things, stacks of wooden crated, elevating the house so that the bottom of the house was well over 6 feet high. Across the road from it was a dilapidated shack. It appeared to be abandoned and the yard was filled with trash. This was so strange we stopped the bike. As we stood there trying to figure out why an abandoned house would be lifted well off the ground, it occurred to me that a picture might be in order and maybe someone else would know what this was about. I got out the iPhone to take a photo and that’s when I heard the sound of big angry dogs barking from within the shack and heading our way. I shouted to Daegan that we had to get going! We pedaled away from there as fast as we could. We never managed to get a photo, or to figure out if anyone lived there or if we’d stumbled across some feral dogs. A few kilometres later we stopped for a shade break.

After our last odd experience, part of me wondered if it was wise to stop here. Seems like we might have walked into a B horror film.

Fortunately, we had not ended up in the next installment of the Night of the Living Dead series and before long it was time for a late lunch. All that was available to us this time was a truckstop/bar but it had a nice porch to eat on and so we sat outside and ate our smoked meat sandwiches and rehydrated ourselves while a group of boisterous motorcyclists sat speaking French peppered liberally with Quebecois curses at a nearby table.

After lunch we ended up back on a lovely bike trail that took us to within a few kilometres of the US border. And a few minutes later our trip became an international one.

Crossing the US border by bicycle is a really pleasant experience. While I find that US border guards to be pretty gruff, traveling on a vehicle with hardly any capacity for smuggling goods, and no capacity for bringing any undeclared people means that there tends to be less hassle. We still had to answer the usual questions of where we were going, whether Daegan had permission from his mom (we had a letter from Sage saying he was OK to come with me – a nearly essential practice when crossing the border without both parents), and whether or not we were bringing in any drugs. He asked this question a couple of times, the second time saying “Are you sure? No advil or tylenol even?” Wow, he almost had me there – I had a small bottle of Advil, the same ones I’d taken for my sore wrists a few days earlier. Once we cleared up everything I was bringing in, he sent us on our way.

By the time we left customs it was quite hot. We stopped for a break on the side of the road and a 60something man rolled up on his bike and asked about our journey. He offered us water (we were OK at this point), and let us know that we could stay in his back yard if we wanted to. It was nice of him to offer but unfortunately without a tent we weren’t going to be able to.

We continued onward, closing in on our host’s home in Plattsburgh. With the high temperatures and strong wind, we were consuming much more water than usual. Once again we found ourselves running dangerously low on water. On the positive side, it wasn’t long before we found a convenience store where we could have some snacks, eat some popsicles, and refill our water bottles. Looking back on this trip after the fact, I realize that bringing more water would be a very good idea. 5 bottles for two people was just enough and having extra would have been a very good idea.

Finally, after 115 kilometres (71 miles) and a very long day we found our way to our host’s house. We walked up to the screen door and knocked. No answer. We looked in and the house was something of a disaster – lots of clutter and very dirty. Dae, having his wits about him suggested I check the address. Whoops! We were about 2 blocks away from where we were supposed to be! Good thing nobody came to the door.

Our host met us and had dinner ready for us. He definitely knew his cyclists as well. Not only was there spaghetti ready for dinner, there were side dishes of potato salad and macaroni salad. Carb loading is definitely your friend on a ride like this. We spent the evening talking about our host’s travels and the time he spent in Cambodia – it sounded absolutely fascinating. A quick walk down the street took us to a dairy bar and convenience store where we got some more snacks for the next day’s ride and some ice cream for that night’s dessert.

A good, albeit odd, day. And fortunately, completely zombie-free.

Note: Daegan and I redid much of this ride together in 2017. You can find information about it here.

4 thoughts on “500 Kindnesses Ride Day #9: South of the Border

  1. How odd about that house! I wish you’d gotten a picture before the dogs scared you away haha. I’m so glad the people didn’t answer when you knocked on the wrong door & I’m glad you didn’t decide to sleep in that guy’s backyard! Your host you had sounds amazing. Cooking food for you! That’s so nice! & how he travelled to Cambodia!!!

    1. I know! It was quite an adventure. Our hosts all along the way were completely amazing. They almost always cooked us dinner (and if we stayed multiple days we’d take them out). And of course they had really amazing stories of their own. I think this is because anyone who is adventurous enough to just allow a stranger to sleep in their house also has done a whole bunch of other really adventurous things as well. Along this trip we stayed with about 10 different families we’d never met before and they were all varying degrees of amazing.

    2. The crazy thing is that we specifically took that route last summer just to see if we could find that house and the place where the dogs were. We found the “Abbatoir” sign just where we knew it would be. But there was no sign of the other place. If there weren’t two of us on both trips I’d have thought that I’d dreamed it. It really did have that dream-like feel to it all.

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