I finish breakfast Sunday morning and put on my cycling clothes. I pack a spare tube, pump, patch kit, lights, a few simple tools, four energy bars and two big bottles of water and head out the door. I’ve got no firm destination or plan except the very next step: Ride my bike downtown to the GO Bus terminal and take the first bus I see. From here buses go to destinations outside the city of Toronto so I could end up any number of places.
The weather is fantastic. It’s about 28°C and sunny with a gentle breeze. As I get close to the lake, I can smell the water. As it’s a long holiday weekend, there is arguably more holiday traffic on the bike paths I start on than the city streets that finally bring me to the station.
I stop across the street from the station and can already see a bus but it’s out of service. But as if in response to my looking at it, the sign changes and people start to line up.
I’ve heard of Uxbridge and have seen it on the map. I know only that it’s to the northeast of Toronto. Beyond that it’s a mystery. I place my bike on the rack and settle in to my seat.
As you can see the bike is secured by its front wheel in the rack and will safely ride there for the duration of the trip. I choose a seat behind the driver in front of a wall, take out my book and put in my earbuds. I want as much as possible to avoid seeing any landmarks I might use to navigate back home or give me a clue as to where I should go once I’m on my own.
As we ride, I read and doze until I think we’re getting close to our destination. I start watching the stop names and see we’re in Uxbridge. After a couple of stops I get up and tell the driver “OK, I think this is good for me.” to which he responds: “That’s good because this is the last stop!”
I thank the driver and take the bike off the rack and look around.
Before starting, though, I stop at “Captain George’s” fish and chips. On so many rides, this is the food that Daegan and I often eat. Fries have loads of carbohydrates for fuel, the fish has protein, and the fat…well that tastes good. It’s also not usually something I eat day to day due to its very high calorie count. But riding a bike long distances burns lots of calories: I’ve burned over 5,000 on a 100 km ride. There is nothing worse than having a huge calorie deficit. So I’m eating this to take care of myself! That’s it!
The meal is excellent. The fish is light and not too greasy. The fries are hot, crispy on the outside and soft on the inside. I leave absolutely stuffed.
I unlock my bike and look around to try to figure out which direction home is in. Right now the sun is directly overhead so I can’t rely on “the sun rises in the east and sets in the west” combined with my clock. I have to go on pure instinct. And so, I head off down the road and soon I am zooming along at a comfortable 25 km/hr.
As I ride I like looking around me. Uxbridge is a pretty little town. If there were a way I could live here without a car I might even consider it. But to get to Toronto would take 90 minutes and then I’d have another hour to 90 minutes to get to work. It’s not in the cards. The houses are refreshingly small here. There are 2-3 bedroom bungalows that look to be about 1,000 square feet. In Toronto, many of these small houses have either been added on to or completely demolished in order to make massive 3000+ square foot homes – often for families of 2-4 people. Who needs that kind of space?
As I think about this something catches my eye. On my left is North 3rd Avenue. On my right is South 3rd Avenue. So much for my stellar sense of direction. I’m going east – almost completely in the wrong direction to get home. I turn right on to South 3rd Avenue, confident that I’m headed south, more generally toward home.
It’s all well and good until the road ends about a kilometre later. I turn west through the back lot of a Royal Canadian Legion and find my way to another, busier road and turn what I think must be south. It, too, stops soon after. It looks like the road I run in to now goes either northwest or southeast. Neither gets me home but I have to make a choice and pick the one headed southeast , turning immediately due south the first chance I get.
And now I am in a residential neighbourhood. Kids are playing on the front lawn. One lawn is covered with children and a giant inflatable rainbow unicorn. Now there’s an awesome birthday party. But what’s happening now? The road is turning north again. The road is a simple ‘U’ loop which gets me nowhere. I turn northwest this time and I manage to get to a street that is clearly north/south. It looks busy enough that I don’t think I’ll have to worry about it disappearing immediately. And so, onward I go.
Three kilometres later I see a road headed due southwest – the perfect direction. I take it and am on my way. The town is disappearing behind me and the scenery is getting really pretty.
I’m still a bit unsure of myself thanks to my completely losing my sense of direction at the beginning and am hoping for a chance to find something that will tell me the direction. Not so lucky, though. The sun is still very high in the sky. I do see another sign, though:
I don’t know anything about this route, but I do feel like a sign with bikes on it will lead me somewhere that is at least pleasant to ride. I turn and follow it.
The terrain north of Toronto has a lot of rolling hills. I find myself pushing hard up hills, but I’m also rewarded by great descents, at one point hitting 70.9 km/hr (44 mph), the wind screaming in my ears and not a car to be seen for miles.
The further I get from Uxbridge, in fact, the fewer cars I see. Several minutes pass by where I have the road entirely to myself. I stop sometimes and hear only birds and the occasional cicada.
I may be relatively close to Toronto but I’m very surprised when the pavement runs out and I am riding on a dirt road.
The slope now is generally downward and so I don’t have to work that hard to keep moving. In fact, I am mostly braking now, trying not to go too fast and slide around on the gravel.
A sign tells me to turn right if I want to stay on the Greenbelt Trail, but that would mean losing this great downhill. And really, isn’t the lake, and thus Toronto, downhill from here? I continue forward until the road ends and I’m forced to choose between going right or left. I go right. And a kilometre later I come to a fork in the road. Another road goes north, parallel to the road I just came down – doubtless back UP the nice hill I coasted down. The other fork says “No Exit”
I suppose I could have turned back and chosen left at the last fork but instead I bite the bullet and go up the hill. I don’t like to backtrack if I can’t help it.
There still aren’t a lot of people around. On this road I see one pickup truck and nobody else. That’s not entirely true. Three horses in a field start to get closer to investigate me, doubtless wondering if I might’ve brought apples or something else tasty.
I get to a large paved road. It’s not too busy and it heads to the southwest – and home. I take it.
On the plus side, the pavement is smooth and I go quite quickly. On the downside, there is more traffic. It doesn’t feel dangerous, but being passed by loud, smelly cars and trucks after having spent the past hour or so on a dirt road by myself, I’m not happy with it. I’m going to keep my eyes open for another road.
I see my first sign for a town in the distance and I get excited. Maybe I’ll know where I am. As I get closer I can read it: “Claremont”. Nope, I know one Claremont, in New Hampshire. I have never heard of Claremont, Ontario. But at least now the sun is lower in the sky, and I’m clearly heading generally southwest toward Toronto.
After breathing a cloud of diesel as a big truck passes, I am thrilled to see a dirt road on the left. It looks small enough that it won’t see a lot of people, but not so small that it might end or worse yet be someone’s driveway. I wait for the oncoming traffic to clear and then make a left turn onto it.
And this road is beautiful. Once again I’m all alone, except now for a couple buzzing insects that fly around my head as I ride. They don’t seem interested in biting or stinging but they also don’t seem very interested in leaving either. And then I see something worrisome:
I’ve apparently come to the end of the city road. At first I laugh. Where’s the city? But then I wonder what this means. Am I now going in someone’s driveway? Isn’t this how scary movies in the 1970’s and 80’s used to start? “Oh, I’m sure it’ll be fine – where we’re going is just on the other side. We’ll take this shortcut!”
And so I continue. And I see nothing. No houses, no cars, and even the buzzing insects have given up on me. It’s deadly silent. And then I see some fenced-in lawn coming up on the left.
Right – deserted road, no houses, only a cemetery, cyclist all alone. This isn’t a setup for a movie at all. But I’m too curious to pass it up. I stop and look around.
All of the stones are from the early to mid 1800’s and most are almost completely illegible. I wish I had brought paper and charcoal as I think I could probably be able to read these inscriptions if I did a rubbing of the stones.
As I sit here alone in the cemetery sipping my water, I realize that this is unlike any bike ride I have ever done before. On bike tours I have a plan: travel this route to the destination where I will sleep – and repeat until I get to the end. On a commute it is the same thing, and on a training ride, there’s usually a loop of a predetermined distance. But today I have nowhere to be. I have no predetermined route. If I take too long, I have lights to light my way. If I get tired, I can find my way to a commuter train or bus line and take it home. I am completely at leisure to enjoy the time and I’m soaking it up.
I learn later that at this time I’m in an area formerly known as Altona. The land is north of Pickering, Ontario and was expropriated by the government with the intent to build a second airport to serve Toronto. Houses and most buildings were cleared, and people relocated. But so far the airport hasn’t been built. The result is that it is possible by bike to get to an incredibly quiet and peaceful place just a short ride from the biggest city in Canada.
The dirt road continues for quite some distance before reaching a wide, relatively busy road. There’s no other alternative but for me to start down it. It isn’t long before I realize it’s Highway 7 – one of the busiest roads north of Toronto. At this distance from the city, though, it’s wide and even has a wide curb lane for me to feel safe in as I ride. The smooth pavement makes me happy and I’m able to move along at 25-30 km/hour without much effort and the kilometres rack up quickly.
Soon I get to a sign that tells me I’m somewhere that I’ve heard of before.
The contrast of the beautiful field with the population is really interesting. It isn’t long before I start to realize that there really are that many people here. The fields give way to strip malls and big box stores. I’m in full on inner suburbia – one of my least favourite places to ride. However today the traffic is light and the drivers surprisingly courteous. I don’t have to think about finding an alternative route. This one is just fine. And my devotion is rewarded after a few kilometres:
I’m diverted on to a physically separated bike lane. The cement isn’t as quick to roll on as the asphalt but I’m happy just having the space and comfort to ride without cars again. This one takes me all the way to Leslie – almost due north of where I live. I’ve done this part of the ride a bunch of times on other rides in to York Region. And I also know that on the corner here is a Tim Hortons where they have more of my favourite cycling treats:
I get a raisin bran muffin, frozen lemonade, and they are even kind enough not only to refill my water bottles but to add ice to them. Every Tim Hortons I’ve stopped at has offered this and every time it makes me happy.
As I drink the lemonade I realize I have not been drinking enough. I greedily guzzle it until the brain freeze hurts too much and I stop. Then I eat some muffin to try to clear the headache.
I head down Leslie and am really pleasantly surprised. Not only have they turned the sidewalk on Leslie and John Street in to extra-wide shared spaces for cyclists, the gravely and sometimes muddy path that leads through Berczy Park has been fully paved. It is a dream to cycle on. This path leads me to a nearly deserted portion of Leslie Street, and then within a few metres after I cross in to Toronto, another bike path is available to take me home – most of it by the same way I have been commuting home from work these days.
This is such a fantastic experience that as I ride home I try to figure out ways in which to do this again. I can take a different bus for sure, but can I get a friend with a car to just blindfold me and drop me in an unknown location 80 or so kilometres from home? This is truly “Engineering the Unexpected” in a big way and I really love it.
For the curious, here is my route. You can click on it to go to Strava to see the actual details of the ride (zoom in, check speed, etc) and follow me there if you are are a runner or cyclist. And if you’d like to see more photos and even video from the trip you can see all that here.
And stay tuned. I’ve already done this week’s adventure and it was a really fun, once in a lifetime experience.